Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch over Me, produced by Anthony Batchelder, presented by Theatre Tulsa and directed by George Romero, is crucial theatre. It is the kind of play that we, as theatergoers, are obligated to see, almost regardless of the production's quality. Happily, a strong directorial vision guides this production, and competent actors see the play through to its fateful conclusion.
The text takes as its inspiration (if such horror can be called that) the Lebanon hostage crisis, which spanned 1982 and 1992. During this period, dozens of people were kidnapped and held hostage by Lebanese religious and political radicals. The play focuses on the story of three fictional hostages: an American named Adam (Nathan West), an Irishman named Edward (Tim Tillock), and an Englishman named Michael (Jay Christie).
Adam was first in the cell and has been there the longest. After two months, by his estimation, his captors added Edward. A few months pass (the first two scenes involve only these two men), and then the captors add Michael to the mix.
The bad blood between the Irish and the English threatens the relationship between Edward and Michael from word one. Adam seeks to mediate between them, but his time in the cell finally begins to take its toll on him, and Edward and Michael are eventually left to their own devices.
The story has less to do with "How do these men escape?" and more with "How will they survive?" An essential component of their survival is their ability to depend upon and support one another. Given the racial tension between Edward and Michael, on top of the inevitable chafing generated by sharing a cell for months on end, their ability to survive, physically and mentally, hangs by a thread. Only their tenuous alliance will keep them all from slipping into the private hell of insanity.
The actors succeed in identifying and clarifying the shifting alliances and conflicts among these men. There are times when one man wins and another loses, and there are times when two or all three win. It is always clear which characters are experiencing victory.
I would have liked the actors to relish these victories a little more, especially Edward's several spiteful attacks on Michael regarding his priggishness. Though the attacks were always clear, I would have liked to see him revel in Michael's misery.
Their spite for one another is, after all, one of many coping mechanisms the characters use to survive their grueling imprisonment. Edward and Michael don't snipe at one another for sport; they do it to stay sane.
Adam's loss of sanity is another sticking point for this production. Insanity is the actor's classic challenge. To play a character, one must understand the character.
This implies that, to play insanity, one must understand insanity. Thus the problem: insanity is, by definition, incomprehensible.
West chooses a manic approach to Adam's insanity. Given the text, and Adam's rapid-fire shifts from one subject and emotion to another, this approach makes sense. The giggling, for me, seemed overwrought, as if played for effect.
Edward's own breakdown near the show's end works better, although the stakes could be higher. It's the play's climax, after all. When Michael commands him to laugh, I needed to see that laughter as absolutely crucial to their survival, but it didn't come off as urgent as it needed to be. The sequence leading into that moment, however, works well. Edward "buys" Michael a car for Christmas, and they go for an imaginary drive. Christie is especially playful here.
I had trouble getting over Christie's size. It seemed an odd casting choice, especially given the repeated references to Michael's small stature in the text. Edward calls him a "nancy little Englishman." Michael even calls himself a "sanctimonious prig." And Michael admits to a fear of Edward, the bullying Irishman who can inflict physical and psychic damage on his cell mates. But Christie towers over Tillock, rendering Michael's fear of Edward illogical.
Fortunately, Christie keeps his British dialect light, even frail, which helps to offset his imposing physical presence. He does need to watch the short As and ending Rs, as these sound too American (read: nasal and over-pronounced) for a Brit.
I was also disappointed that the notes in the program had been cribbed from Wikipedia. I would have liked something original and more closely tied to this production.
This production is at its best during the humorous moments, of which, despite the grave subject matter, there are many. Humor is another survival mechanism for these men, and though the humor becomes crude and even cruel at times, the actors use laughter to their characters' advantage.
The grave moments are the ones that compel us to see theatre like this. McGuinness writes with unwavering vision, allowing us to see three average Joes struggle for survival. He lays bare their deepest fears and emotions so that we, as an audience, can understand and sympathize with the desperation which drives men to do things both demonic and saintly.
Someone Who'll Watch over Me continues June 26-28 in the Liddy Doenges Theater of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. For more information call 596-7111 or visit www.tulsapac.com.
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