Thank goodness John Zalewski's sound design does for cell-phone rings what Disney did for snails in its Electric Parade: makes them not just tolerable but almost worthy of an "aww." The gratitude is in large part because we're exposed to quite a few rings over the course of Sarah Ruhl's play. When a man dies swiftly and silently — indeed still seated ramrod upright — at a café table, the woman sitting near him can't help but answer his cell phone and then continue to do so for months, trying to somehow protect him, comfort his survivors, and preserve a memory of him that might be, oh, so slightly undeserved. The audience of course silently chides her for ignoring her own life and potential. And therein lies sturdy catharsis.
Under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo, the production has a sleek look, swift pace, but lingeringly sweet lesson taught by a stylistically uniform cast. In an interesting choice, Ruhl introduces the dead man, Gordon — to us via a direct address monologue and to his devoted argus, Jean, via one (probably dream) scene. As Gordon, Lenny Von Dohlen offers a mesmerizing, mysterious character, although the actor's voice distractingly seemed strained at the performance reviewed. As Jean, Margaret Welsh is all sincere devotion and youthful arrested development despite Jean's early-middle age.
Gordon's upper-crust family takes to Jean, inviting her to stay for a WASPishly strained dinner. Mother presides, and Christina Pickles essays her as a relatively complex woman, who says, "I'm not sure what to say," but who lets us know it's because there's too much to choose from. Andrew Borba is wonderfully appealing as a teddy bear of a man, the younger brother always ignored by mom. As Gordon's sister, Shannon Holt is at first overblown haughtiness, then overblown drunkenness. And as shady characters in Gordon's life, the perfectly heightened Nike Doukas uses tasty accents that are mildly Western European and rollingly Eastern European.
Ruhl's script provides metaphor aplenty. In her dialogue the metaphors range from whimsically humorous ("You're very comforting. Like a very small casserole") to symbolically instructional ("The music of the spheres is gossip — the only technology God didn't invent"). And in her storytelling, she reminds us that cell-phone communication may come and go, but love is strong enough to speak across our universe. In his monologue, Gordon regrets his failure to do all those Our Town things on his last day. But it's Jean's awakening and final cosmic shout that serves as the audience's clarion call to appreciate love and show it.
Presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue.-Fri. 7:45 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 & 7:45 p.m. Sep. 26-Oct. 12. (714) 708-5555. www.scr.org.