'An American, an Irishman and a Brit get locked in a prison...'
No, it's not the start of some corny joke, but the premise of director Stephanie Gularte's production of Frank McGuinness' gripping play, 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me,' which continues through April 25 at Old Sacramento's Capital Stage theater.
In the late 1980s, Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Waite were taken hostage in Beirut. They were held, together or separately, for more than four years. 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' is McGuinness' fictionalized version of these events, based on interviews with Keenan after his release.
While McGuinness might have been tempted to get maudlin, or to deliver some message about relations with the Middle East, none of that is present in this play. Instead, it simply shows what happens when three men are locked together in a windowless cell, their legs chained to the wall, with nothing to do, day in and day out.
How do they survive the sheer boredom of incarceration? ('The boredom, the boredom, the bloody boredom!')
And how does the playwright keep the audience from being bored, as well?
Given the powerful cast in this Capital Stage production, boredom isn't an issue.
Bay Area actor Michael Wiles plays Adam, the American doctor, who was captured first and spent his first few months alone. He's determined to stay strong, to keep his mind alert. He reads the Bible and the Koran, the only books permitted in the cell.
Wiles must lose a pound or two with each performance, with his often frantic exercise routines, pulling himself up on an overhead bar and doing sit-ups.
K. Scott Coopwood plays Edward, the Irishman who joins Adam. As the play opens, the two men have been in the cell together for two months, and have formed a friendship. They try to never give their captors the satisfaction of knowing they're being broken by their confinement, and they support each another at times of despair.
'You mustn't let them hear you cry. They're listening to you, as you speak. They want you to weep. Don't ever do that in here. I'm warning you, don't weep. That's what they want. So don't cry. Laugh. Do you hear me? Laugh.'
Coopwood, who went on a starvation diet and lost a lot of weight for this play, has an infectious electricity to his performance. He has the Irish personality down to a 'T,' and he keeps the audience engaged with his flashing eyes and impish grin. He's loud, larger than life, reacts emotionally and is as quick with his temper as he is with a charade, to pass the time.
Both men are afraid, but exhibit bravado to keep this concealed.
The mix is augmented by Michael - Matt K. Miller, making his Capital Stage debut - a British scholar who was abducted while going to the market to buy pears, for a flan he wanted to prepare for some dinner guests. Michael is mild-mannered, highly repressed and terrified, as he begins to understand the gravity of his situation.
He's afraid of his unseen captors, and he's afraid of his cellmates. He worries about his mother, at home in England.
Michael undergoes the greatest metamorphosis, as he gradually settles into life in the prison. He doesn't understand the rough humor. He wants to belong, but doesn't know how. Under Miller's skillful hands, Michael begins to adapt to his environment, to shed some of his inhibitions and join in with the antics of the other two.
It's a brilliant performance.
To keep despair and insanity at bay, the men imagine and enact wild movies they might make, lethal cocktails they might drink to excess, provocative letters they might write. They fly away - mentally, at least - by singing 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' In a standout sequence, they re-enact Virginia Wade's 1977 victory at Wimbledon.
If any criticism can be levied at this production, it concerns the projection used in the second act, to enhance a fantasy scene. Up to that moment, we've been living with these three men, in their fantasy world; the projection is an unnecessary and distracting intrusion. We don't need a 'crutch' to show where the men are, and what they are pretending to be doing.
'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' is a powerful production, both tragic and often hilarious. McGuinness' drama gives audiences a chance to explore the shared humanity of men from diverse backgrounds, who struggle against tremendous adversity.
And are determined to triumph over it.