An admirable revival of Frank McGuinness’s Tony-nominated play from the early 1990s about Western hostages in Lebanon comes courtesy of a brand-new theater company called The TRUF and the Canal Park Playhouse. Staging this play in the post-9/11 era gives it an added dimension, a kind of perverted nostalgia for the days when terrorism often meant the sufferings of a small number of individuals rather than large-scale mass murder. Celebrity hostages like Terry Waite personified the twisted inhumanity that radicalized humans were capable of inflicting upon innocent victims.
With the 9/11 attacks, what had been a struggle against terrorism became a war, with all the blinding destruction of endless bombings and secret drone strikes. This puts a new historical framework around McGuinness’s drama, with the perhaps contradictory effects of distancing it from our sensibilities while bringing us, if anything, closer to the McGuinness’s brilliantly drawn characters – Edward, the Irish journalist (Timothy Riley); Michael, the Englishman, a professor proficient in Old and Middle English (Alex Teachey); and Adam, an American doctor (director Justin Lauro has stepped into that role after the loss of a cast member).
As the weeks and months go by the characters try with on-and-off success to keep themselves calm and sane by singing, playing games, exercising, second-guessing their unseen (by us) captors, and fantasizing out loud. Dependencies (“As long as you are here, I am here”) mix with conflicts arising from their own characters and especially their nationalities. McGuinness has much to say about how a common language doesn’t imply a common cultural perspective. Language itself is a major theme too; Edward takes offense when Michael refers to his Irish speech as a “dialect,” insisting that the Irish have in fact done better with their adopted tongue than the English themselves. The well-spoken Michael himself bemoans the way his “language has gone to pot since meeting you both.”
As the men creep toward their divergent fates their personalities do peel away, but there is something encouraging about how they do not entirely lose their marbles. “Have they, or have they not, made me less of a man, by reason of what they’ve done to me?” asks Edward. “And they haven’t. They’ve made themselves less than men, in locking me away like this.” But the real power of the play lies not in discrete moments of articulate strength, but in the interaction among the men, sometimes nearly absurd or Beckettian, sometimes borderline sentimental, but always believable.
Mr. Riley’s passionate Edward evokes but doesn’t get subsumed in the resentments of his people’s 800 years of oppression; despite an accent that sometimes slips, Riley inhabits the role so fully he can take us equally convincingly on flights of pain and of fantasy. Though the very model of a quiet English don, Mr. Teachey’s Michael, a widower in a strange land, transports us utterly into his dark sad world, especially near the end of the play in a superb monologue about his father. These two characters stayed with me long after I’d left the theater.
Mr. Lauro, alternately steely and despairing as the frustrated American who’s been a prisoner the longest, directs the close-confined action – if “action” is the right word in a dim cell with men chained to the walls – with subtlety but lit with flames of agony and humor, aided by appropriately gloomy yellow lighting (Daniel Dungan) and the strains of Ella Fitzgerald. Go see this big play with this small cast, and fill up the tiny little theater at the Canal Park Playhouse. Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me runs through July 14.