Emily: We do know these people, wouldn’t you say Mr. Rivers?
Emily: We know the other operators.
Rivers: In a way.
Emily: Yes, in a way. Thought for a moment I was going insane.
— From “Telegraph” by Will Jacobs
The method is strange at first, disconcerting, but new rules and rhythms are quickly internalized. Soon the machines seem almost to speak.
In “Telegraph,” playwright and Washington University in St. Louis alum Will Jacobs explores the wonder and shortcomings of communication technology. The tapping of antique keys and the hum of early electrical wires evoke our own obsessions with social media and the distances it allegedly spans.
From April 16-19, the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences will present the world premiere of Jacobs’ drama, winner of the university’s 2014 A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition.
Performances begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 16, 17 and 18, in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre. Matinee performances will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19.
The A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre is located in Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office.
For more information, call 314-935-6543.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, “Telegraph” centers on Mr. Rivers, a veteran operator who sits in his office, relays messages and pines for his missing wife, Charlotte. But Rivers’ lonely existence is disrupted by the arrival of Miss Emily Stone, who insists that she’s been hired as Rivers’ assistant. Rivers is disbelieving but Emily produces cables as proof.
The kicker: the cables are from Charlotte. The further kicker: Emily learns from a customer that Charlotte is supposed to be dead.
Yet as she masters the telegraph machinery, Emily begins to form disembodied attachments of her own, thanks to the intimate correspondence of her fellow operators.
“The world of the play is pointedly unreal,” said Jacobs, a 2014 graduate in Arts & Sciences. “When I’m writing, the characters begin more grounded or realistic, but evolve to become weirder and more colorful. Even the names — ‘Rivers,’ ‘Stone’ — suggest a kind of fable or mythology.”
Emily at first takes pride and comfort in her newfound skills. But as Rivers spins out of control, Emily grows increasingly dissatisfied with the insistent, ever-present unreality of her long-distance relationships.
“Facebook, and how real those experiences are, is certainly a subtext,” Jacobs said. “Computers, phones, cars … today, we’re surrounded by these things but we really don’t understand how they work.
“I think ‘Telegraph’ grew from a kind of unjustified nostalgia,” Jacobs said. “It’s nostalgia for a time when technology was simpler and when the things that science didn’t understand were almost questions of faith.
“The play was born from this possibility of magic.”
Cast and crew
The cast of three features junior Joe Holley as Mr. Rivers and sophomore Rebecca Cohen as Emily Stone. Senior Anna Richards is Mrs. Brennan, the stout-hearted customer desperate for news of her ailing son.
Scenic design is by senior Adam Cohen. Costumes are by Sallie Durbin, costume shop supervisor. Lighting is by lecturer Sean Savoie. Sound is by freshman Jon Zielke.
Andrea Urice, senior lecturer in drama, directs. Assistant director is junior Meghan McLeroy. Stage manager is sophomore Sarah Azizo. Assistant Stage Manager is senior Seira Furukawa. Props are by Emily Frei.