"Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," Frank McGuinness' 1992 Off Broadway show about a British professor, Irish journalist and American doctor held hostage in a Beirut basement, is the ultimate actor's showcase.
From the West End to Off Broadway to its California premiere at South Coast Repertory in March, McGuinness' question of how three men can survive the boredom of months of being chained to a basement wall has transposed into the theatrical question of how three chained actors can hold our attention for nearly two hours on a minimal stage.
Under the skilled and sensitive direction of Sheldon Epps at the Old Globe Theatre, Cotter Smith's verbally adroit Irishman, Richard Easton's literature-loving Englishman and Terry Alexander's passionate American do just that in this intermissionless version of the play. They mesmerize, even though McGuinness doesn't plunge deeply enough into any of his characters . . . and particularly lacks authenticity in the dialogue of the black American (but in McGuinness' defense, the part wasn't written as a black role, even though it has been cast as such in the three productions).
Though neither director nor cast can solve what's lacking in the play, these impeccable performers help the show, at times, to realize its potential both as a reminder not just of the at least 88 hostages who disappeared in Lebanon in the 1980s, but as a cautionary tale of how we keep each other's spirits alive on a daily basis.
The prisoners watch over each other as we all watch over those whose lives we touch, keeping each other from madness and despair with the most important tools humankind has yet developed--laughter, love and imagination.
McGuinness, an Irish playwright, is clearly most at home in his portrait of the Irish journalist, and Smith's charged performance realizes not only his character's love of language, but also his anger and anguish. He sends his words shooting and shimmering, like pebbles skipping on the water, even as he puts a haunting spin and shadow on the lightest of wordplay.
Easton, an Old Globe associate artist, and one of the treasures of that company, captures the sheer terror of the newest member of the incarcerated team, a freshly caught, apolitical devotee of poetry. He navigates the journey of grief from denial to anger, frustration, bargaining and acceptance with inspiring and dignified grace.
But the words McGuinness crafts for Adam fall falsely on American ears, in part because he makes him simplistically proud of his country.
As the Irishman rails about hundreds of years of Irish oppression and the British professor uses Scarlett O'Hara's Irish ancestry as a basis for a theory that the Irish were pro-slavery in the American Civil War, the playwright gives the American nothing to say. But, as if compensation for such a glaring omission, Alexander conjures up unwritten depths that make his pain palpable, staring at them as if he finds their conversation unbelievable and is struck mute by his own consuming fear of death.
One element the Old Globe has over the SCR production (which for some reason inserted an intermission) is the sense of imminent danger it conveys. Within the suffocating confines of Greg Lucas' bleak basement set, there is one opening--suggestive of a door--to which the rag-clad hostages steal a glance, radiating fear of their captors looking in on them and listening to them. The presence of threat suffuses even the hostages' most fanciful moments with desperation and anguish.
In the New York staging, each actor had a leg chained to the wall. Here, the wrists are chained, allowing more movement. Of course, if you want to consider the real chains of the play, look to McGuinness' own limited understanding of who these people are. And yet, it would be a mistake to dismiss this as a mere acting exercise, for despite the play's lapses, it has moments of taking flight, eloquently underlined by Michael Gilliam's mood-enhancing lighting.
Go with it, follow the looks sometimes more than the words, feel the different stages of grief as projected by these fine performers and, for at least a few moments, you may just get a whiff of the sadness and salvation of the human condition.
* "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Aug 21. $23-$34. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
Terry Alexander Adam
Richard Easton Michael
Cotter Smith Edward
Old Globe Theatre. By Frank McGuinness. Directed by Sheldon Epps. Set: Greg Lucas. Costumes: Dione Lebhar. Lights: Michael Gilliam. Sound: Jeff Ladman. Vocal/dialect coach: Claudia Hill. Stage manager: Raul Moncada.