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Sending Telegrams to the Dead

Date: Feb 24, 2014


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"There's not that much difference between believing in heaven and believing that making a living working in the theatre is possible."

This is one way Ken Urban reconciles being an atheist who writes about spirituality, as he does in The Correspondent, which runs through March 16 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. While developing his new play, about a desperate widower who resorts to paranormal methods to contact his dead wife, Urban cut half the characters, streamlined the action to one Boston row house, and made any number of other modifications. But his decidedly non-rational denouement has given not only audiences but also literary managers the shivers.

"A couple theatres expressed interest in the play, but only if I changed the ending," Urban says. "And I wouldn't do it. A lot of it has changed along the way, but not the very first scene and the last two pages."

The uncanny resolution in The Correspondent stems from a plot device that sounds so dubious it could only come from real life. Back in 2006, Urban found an ad for what he calls an "afterlife telegram service," which promised to send messages to the dead.

"I started wondering, 'What kind of person would fall for such an obvious scam?'" says Urban, who has interwoven romance and mystery in earlier plays like The Private Lives of Eskimos. His first step was imagining someone who was actually in enough pain to contact such a business. "Then, because I'm a rational person, I started to think through the logistics of the thing."

The result is a twisty, psychologically adventurous play consisting of three characters: Philip (Thomas Jay Ryan), the widower; Mirabel (Heather Alicia Simms), the woman he hires to send a message to his late wife; and the unnamed Young Man (Jordan Geiger), an enigmatic androgyne who complicates matters for both Philip and Mirabel.

An added complication, Urban says, comes from the city where The Correspondent takes place. Right around the time he saw that telegram ad, he also moved to Boston, where he was teaching playwriting at Harvard.

"There's something about going somewhere new," he says. "You can see it through a stranger's eyes, and I found the racial gap there really jarring. I knew I wanted to write about that intense class and race divide." And so Philip became an inhabitant of ritzy Beacon Hill whose increasing involvement with Mirabel, an African-American woman who lives several rungs lower on the socioeconomic ladder, raises eyebrows as much as (or even more than) the dubious circumstances through which they meet.

All of these themes are grounded, however, in the inevitability of loss. "A lot of the play is about how you just don't overcome grief," Urban says. "It constantly comes back and bites you on the ass."


Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program

Photo by Joan Marcus