Watching three men chained to a wall all evening may not sound particularly compelling. But Oak Park Festival Theatre's new production of the 1992 play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Irish dramatist Frank McGuinness is tightly staged and strongly performed.
If anything, this gritty psychodrama is more pertinent today than it might have been two decades ago. Now playing at the Madison Street Studio Theatre, 1010 Madison St., this haunting modern morality play is also surprisingly funny. Solidly directed by Belinda Bremner, this powerful drama is a story of courage, determination, and male bonding.
A plot summary sounds like the set-up for a shaggy-dog joke: an Irishman, and Englishman, and an American are being held hostage indefinitely by unseen Arabs in a small cell in Lebanon. The play explores what happens when these three strangers are thrown together against their will in close confinement. Their fate is uncertain. As they struggle to survive, constantly confronting their personal and nationalistic differences, they also fight to maintain their sanity under the ever-watchful eye of both their captors and one another. But they have nowhere to hide and no one to turn to but each other.
This play was inspired by the experiences of Brian Keenan from Northern Ireland, kidnapped in 1986 in Beirut while lecturing in the university there. The Islamic group Jihad kept Keenan in an underground prison, denying him any contact with the outside world. Most of his 4½ years in Lebanese captivity was shared with a British journalist, John McCarthy. The two became very close. McCarthy was not released until 1991, after over five years in captivity.
This is not really just a political play, however. The cell in which these men are imprisoned could be anywhere. I'm sure other audience members may think of Guantanamo, as I did, while watching the increasing tension of the plot. Staging this work in our post-9/11 era may actually give it added resonance.
The three complex characters are imperfect but are each sympathetic, even though they are sometimes cruel to one another. Covered with filth and wearing rags, they spend every minute of every day together. The squalor and monotony of their captivity takes its toll. They torment as well as protect each other.
This is a trio of stellar performances. The script is very demanding of the actors.
Edward, the Irish prisoner, is a feisty journalist who has an estranged wife and children back home. He's played by Kevin Theis, who fully inhabits this passionate role. Edward is volatile, cocky, and at times vengeful.
More gentle and stable Adam, a sensitive American doctor played by Chris Rickett, has been a prisoner the longest. This bright, grown-up foster child quiets his mind by burying himself in the only two books provided by the captors: the Holy Bible and the Qur'an.
Jack Hickey portrays Michael, a widowed British lecturer of Middle English and medieval studies. He's an aging mama's boy who inhabits a dark, melancholy world. He constantly laments his failed attempt at making and serving pear flan to some dinner guests.
Michael's arrival seems at first to upset the balance of the two-man partnership. Edward may have a level of attachment to Adam that is more than mere companionship.
The three men's common language certainly does not bind them with a common cultural perspective. The Irishman even blames the Brit for the potato famine 150 years earlier. But their need to stay sane trumps their initial divisions and antagonisms. Though there are shifting alliances, the prisoners develop the same emotional connection as soldiers in battle.
To keep themselves mentally intact, they exercise, argue, sing, recite poems, play games, and make up elaborate therapeutic fantasies. Their strongest weapon is their imagination. They engage in a re-enactment of a Wimbledon tennis tournament. They pretend they go on long car drives. They drink imaginary martinis, pass imaginary joints, and write imaginary letters home.
There's not much back story provided. No one ever discusses whatever political situation brought them here or what they did to deserve their imprisonment. But that doesn't matter. The focus is on characterization and the relationships.
The title of the play is inspired by the 1926 show tune by George and Ira Gershwin, "Someone to [not who'll] Watch Over Me." Sometimes we hear snatches of Ella Fitzgerald singing the jazz standard, linking several of the episodes.
The intimacy of the Madison Street Studio space enhances the dominant feeling of claustrophobia and confinement. Set designer Andrew Hildner has the performance space elevated, which makes the actors easier to see. There are no windows so the men are never sure if it's night or day. A single bare bulb hangs down into the cell.
The assistant director is Lucy Carr. Julia Zayas-Melendez is stage manager.
Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is a thought-provoking, at times repetitive, but dynamic drama about three powerless men trapped in a desperate situation. This strong Oak Park Festival Theatre production is a tightly-paced and well-acted celebration of the resilient human spirit.
Doug Deuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.