DECATUR - After seeing Millikin University's production of "Dead Man's Cell Phone," audience members may think twice before answering an unattended call.
If it's anything like the experience of Julie Burchett's character, Jean, it would be far less trouble to just let that cell phone ring.
The play will premiere Wednesday at Pipe Dreams Theatre, with four additional performances through Dec. 11.
In the play, Jean's trouble starts when she grows annoyed with the constantly ringing cell phone of a fellow restaurant diner and stranger, Gordon, and discovers the reason for his inattentiveness is that he has at some point quietly passed away sitting at his table. On a whim, she answers his still-ringing phone and is sucked headfirst into the life of a man she never met.
"She has a moment to sit beside him by herself, and she sort of falls in love with him, or at least the idea of him," Burchett said. "He seems very kind, very genuine to her. She's kind of a quiet, introverted woman, but this play brings her out of her shell. It starts as a small snowball picking up the phone, but once it starts rolling, it can't be stopped."
Matt Walker plays Gordon, the unfortunate deceased around whom the play is built, and whose nebulous relationships with friends and family are explored by the increasingly involved Jean. As the play opens, Gordon's status is already in doubt - namely, whether or not he is alive.
"It's a little more elegant than him face down in his soup," Walker said. "He's just sitting peacefully at the table. People keep asking me if I have any lines in the play. There is a whole scene with me playing a dead man, but I do have other scenes as well."
One of these takes place in an unspecified place Walker thinks of as purgatory, from which Gordon is able to relate his feelings about Jean's involvement in his family and narrate the second act of the play. Walker describes his view of Jean as one of mostly bemusement, but he also questions her motives.
"He actually calls my character out on it, because he asks, ‘Why are you doing all of these things?' " Burchett said. "He asks ‘Who are you actually doing these things for, the family or yourself? Who are you really trying to help?' "
In Burchett's eyes, Jean is for the most part a benevolent, somewhat misguided woman who simply wishes to help the family and friends of Gordon cope with loss, despite the man having been a stranger. To do this, Jean assumes an invented relationship to the deceased Gordon that hovers in substance somewhere between confidante and former mistress.
"Jean likes to live through other people's memories, which is kind of strange, but she finds her happiness in helping other people she doesn't really know," Burchett said. "She helps them remember Gordon and find the goodness in every situation wherever she goes. She may not have experienced a lot in her own life, but she experiences a lot vicariously."
Moments of awkwardness abound in what is essentially a dark comedy with occasional surrealistic moments. Director Denise Myers said the final result is a story about "accepting the call to go on a journey."
"We're calling it a fantasy in a way; it's funny, and there are dramatic elements in it also," she said. "It's kind of fantastical, but there's also realistic moments."
This hodgepodge of influences should keep audiences on their toes, according to Brittany Falardeau, who play's Gordon's mistress.
"I think every scene that happens will have the audience saying ‘I have no idea what will happen next,' " she said. "That's what makes this play exciting and fun, because it's all over the place."