Beyond Vassar

A Call to Acting

By Mally Anderson ’10

Polly Noonan ’89 called me on her cell phone from a Los Angeles cafe one afternoon in January. This was appropriate because, in her next play, the actress will portray a young woman sitting alone in a cafe next to a man who refuses to answer his cell phone. She answers it for him, only to realize that the man is actually dead. She keeps answering it because it keeps ringing, and soon she becomes engrossed in his life.

Noonan, unlike her character, was not alone. She was having lunch with a friend from Vassar who now works as a costume designer for films in Los Angeles. “One of the things about Vassar is the people,” she said. “Most people I know have a few friends from college, but the people from Vassar are still a huge part of my life.” She recalled a recent party with a number of college friends, and someone mentioned having acted in a Philaletheis production of The Tempest. “A bunch of people turned around and said, ‘Oh, hey, I was in that!’ We laughed very hard to see each other again.”

Noonan was already a veteran actor by the time she arrived at Vassar. She started working at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Illinois, when she was 15. She acted in a number of performances there as well as a local NBC television production. While studying English at Vassar, she acted during the summers and had some parts in films, including the Gummi Bear girl in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Noonan left Vassar before graduating and took some time off from acting, instead traveling in Europe with a rock band and directing a few productions before going to art school.

She was coaxed back to acting when she received a phone call from a director saying that writer Sarah Ruhl wanted Polly to read for the main role in her new play Orlando, an adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel, at the Piven Theatre Workshop. Ruhl, an award-winning playwright, also started out at the Piven Theatre Workshop with Noonan, who acted alongside Ruhl’s mother in a play there. “The funniest thing about coming back to acting as an adult person is that I had total culture shock,” said Noonan. The audition was a success, and soon Noonan was acting in full force. She was a founding member of the New Criminals’ company, created by actors Jeremy Piven and John Cusack, and has had film roles in Novocaine, High Fidelity, and Arizona Dream and appears on the cover of a Lemonheads album. She has performed in various other roles at the Piven Theatre Workshop as well as productions in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Dead Man's Cell Phone
Noonan has premiered five other plays written by Ruhl, and her role of Jean in Dead Man’s Cell Phone was written specifically for her. In a playbill from the premiere of Dead Man’s Cell Phone in Washington, DC, in Summer 2007, Ruhl said that she “owes a great debt to Polly. She understands the tone of my plays, the moral center of them, and their emotional pace — Polly is unique in terms of her ability to move quicksilver, with sincerity, through great emotional changes.” In fact, Noonan has played a talking stone, a village idiot, and Queen Elizabeth I in Ruhl’s plays. “I’ve had such good fortune working with Ruhl,” said Noonan. “I’m so excited about the work I’m doing right now.” The latest production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Jessica Thebus, will run at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre in Chicago from April 6 until July 27.