It has become a cliché to say that people feel more isolated nowadays despite the ease with which we can reach out to others through electronic devices and social media. Susan Soon He Stanton takes on that modern paradox in her noisy new play, Today Is My Birthday, whose plot unfolds in a series of conversations conducted through cellphones, loud radio interviews, muffled phone messages, staticky intercoms, and so on. This is unquestionably a play that revels in the omnipresence of sound.
Telling a story this way can quickly lose its novelty, and when Stanton's story meanders midway, our attention does too. But director Kip Fagan guides this unconventional work with enough energy and humor to keep us curious about its soul-searching main character, Emily, played with verve by Jennifer Ikeda. The play, a Page 73 production now making its world premiere at the New Ohio Theatre, really gets its unique charm, though, from the complex sound design of Palmer Hefferan, who serves as a Foley artist while simultaneously executing a multitude of other diverse sound cues.
We're clued into the large role that sound will play upon entering the theater. Set designer Dane Laffrey has covered the walls with soundproofing foam and the floor with deep-pile carpet to insulate us in the world of twentysomething Emily, who has moved back to her native Hawaii after a stint trying to make it as a writer in New York City. Laffrey's set features a long horizontal window along one wall through which we see other characters interact with Emily (mostly via cellphone) in more than 50 fast-shifting scenes, which Jennifer Schriever's effective lighting design clearly delineates.
In these scenes, we learn about Emily's strained family relationships while she speaks with her parents (Emily Kuroda as a humorously meddlesome mom and Ron Domingo as an out-of-it dad). As she frenetically tries to make ends meet with several jobs, including an acting gig on a raucous radio dating show, Emily checks in constantly with her stressed-out friend Hamila (an amusing Nadine Malouf in one of several roles) and with a number of past and potential boyfriends (played by versatile actors Jonathan Brooks and Ugo Chukwu).
Emily's aimless, isolated existence in Hawaii eventually becomes too much for her to bear, and she decides to move to San Francisco to try starting over once again. But when she crashes her car on a dangerous road and her friend Landon (Brooks) comes to her rescue (in one of Emily's only face-to-face encounters in the play), she wonders if the meaning and connectedness she's searching for hasn't been right there in front of her the whole time.
Emily's clamorous world is an apt metaphor for an age in which we're constantly hammered by the deafening racket of technology, information, and countless ringtones. With the dominance of texting nowadays, however, the play already feels dated: How often do people actually speak to each other on cellphones anymore, much less leave messages on voicemail? Still, the play's continuous stream of voices adds to the alienating hurly-burly of sound that gives Today Is My Birthday its resonance. In the end, we sense that what Emily may be searching for lies beyond professional success, romantic satisfaction, or even communion with other people — perhaps it's the peace that comes from achieving inner silence.
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