Three men in a crucible of captivity

Breaking free
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  October 11, 2013

CHAINED UP Three hostages search for Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. | Photo by Todd Brian Backus

In the 1980s, more than 90 Westerners were taken hostage in Lebanon, and the British and US governments refused to negotiate for their release. Irish playwright Frank McGuinness conjures victims of the era in Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, in which three men — American Adam (Nicholas Schroeder), Irish Edward (Matt Power), and English Michael (Michael Howard), must make daily sense of the unthinkable. They do so with such spirit, and even humor, that it becomes a hostage play with a shot of the improv-comedy therapeutics of Circle Mirror Transformation. Daniel Burson directs a playful yet moving production for the American Irish Repertory Ensemble.

Adam, a young doctor, Edward, a middle-aged journalist, and Michael, an aging classics scholar, are confined to a dingy concrete basement room, furnished with but three roll-up mattresses, three bowls, two small books, a modest stock of nubbins to throw at an empty glass, and three chains mounted low on the wall. The lengths of those chains define the dimensions of space and movement, which Burson blocks nicely, and the sparseness of the set amplifies the slightest shift in gestalt: We watch for where the Bible has moved, where the Koran.

With such limited resources, and zero contact with the outside world, the three must resort to their own diversions to keep themselves from despair and madness. Adam, who in Schroeder’s hands has a nervous soldier’s discipline and intensely measured gaze, regiments himself to near-constant motion — jumping jacks, push-ups — but shows his fear when he blinks heavily, fiercely, as if to control or banish what he sees. Edward, on the other hand, is as loath to stop talking as Adam is to stop moving; Power plays him as jovial and a bit of a ham. Michael, who has marvelous, moving subtlety in Howard’s hands, is the last to arrive. He is sensitive, a trifle effeminate, and intimidated by Edward at first (I’d like to see more on Edward’s part to justify this intimidation), but later Michael is generously prone to big cackles and even joy. The three men’s differences in temperament and nationality differences spur arguments over everything from football (soccer) to English-Irish relations, but they also clown fearlessly together, making up and acting out movies about nuns or a loin-clothed activist in Beirut.

Their cinematic diversions sometimes feel curiously slapstick and theatrical early in the show; that along with the script’s sometimes heavy-handed exposition at first distance us somewhat from the reality of the men’s plight. But the play deepens substantially as it unfolds. The men reveal more raw intimacies, their silences hold and seep, and all three hover ever closer to madness. Schroeder gives Adam a startlingly emotional breakdown; Power’s strength grows as he strips the entertainer from Edward’s affect, and he gives a harrowing dual dialogue between Edward and his own father. And Howard, particularly, has some subtle, achingly beautiful moments as Michael feels his way around the state of his elderly mother, alone and without word from him.

Together, they movingly — and entertainingly — fend off the horror. They sustain sanity by looking to the smallest details of their culture, much like the ship-bound look to the horizon to avoid seasickness. This AIRE production celebrates the stamina of the human spirit even when those humans are, very much, alone at sea.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me | by Frank McGuinness | Directed by Daniel Burson | Produced by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble | at the Portland Stage Studio Theater | through October 19 | 207.799.5327

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