Thursday, October 15, 2009


"Someone like Jean doesn't normally get a whole play written about her. She's usually the sidekick or best friend." That's playwright Sarah Ruhl in a Boston Globe article, talking about the protagonist of her play "Dead Man's Cell Phone," which opened last week at Boston's Lyric Stage Company. "I'm interested in what happens if you foreground that character. People like Jean are all heroes of their own story, but they don't feel like heroes on the surface. I'm drawn to people like that in life."

Funny thing, that. A character in a play is only what the playwright makes of her. Central characters are central because the playwright has put them at the center. Peripheral characters are on the sidelines for the same reason. So in that sense, "Jean" is exactly the kind of person who gets a whole play written about her -- because Sarah Ruhl has written just such a play! But Ruhl's point is well taken, and is perhaps evidence of how fully she imagines her characters -- they are real people to her, almost as if they have a life outside of the words and actions the playwright gives them on stage. Perhaps a real-life person of Jean's type is shy and unassuming, likely to be overshadowed in the theatre of work or home or the street by even just slightly bigger, more bombastic people. 

In "Dead Man's Cell Phone," Jean answers the cell phone of a dead man in a cafe, and then, as the Globe article puts it, "begins playing secretary, therapist, and healer to his lives ones. It seems Gordon had made a mess of his life, with a mercurial mistress, a distant mother, a socially awkward brother, and a perilous profession." 

I'm intrigued about the play, and the description makes me wonder about the various roles we play in each other's lives. How prominent or peripheral a role might you have in a play  about your parents or partner or a friend or your boss, or even just someone you met once on the street? And how might that role be different if you wrote the play, or the other person wrote it? 

I'm reminded of the bit in the film "Citizen Kane," in which the title character's manager says "A fellow would remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry. And as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in. And on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress he had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all. But I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." 

"Jean," or a real-life person like Jean, is already is the hero of her own play, and now she finally gets to be the hero of Sarah Ruhl's. Whereas she might just be like the girl with the parasol in "Citizen Kane," incidental, and yet plays large in the imagination of someone else.

Who knows what role we're cast in in each other's lives? 

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