In a stark circle of light a man sits on the floor, shackled, humming “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” the title—not title song—and the opening scene of Frank McGuinness’s play about hostages in Beirut, now at the Berkeley City Club as staged by Wilde Irish Productions.
Another spot of light opens up on another chained man vigorously doing push-ups, who identifies the song as an Ella Fitzgerald hit, one of his desert island wish-records—along with a book on beermaking and a beermaking kit—“And Ella would sing to me, and I’d be happy on a desert island.”
But no such luck. These two are Adam (D. Anthony Harper), an American, and Edward (Mike Vaughn), an Irishman, held hostage in Beirut by captors we never see, but whose offstage presence we can watch them feel.
The two men are caught in a vicious circle, cut off from the world, but never alone, only able to keep talking and playing games to pass the time, verbally sparring to stay in mental shape for tougher battles that may come—and as hostage Brian Keenan said upon his release in 1990, “hanging by ... fingernails over the edge of chaos and feeling ... fingers slowly straightening.”
“Hostage is a mutant creature, full of self-loathing, guilt, and death-wishing,” Keenan again, and this is what is acted out onstage, both for real and, provocatively, as a counter-irritant to the reality, an innoculation to the dangers of hysteria.
This provides what would be a grim, too-literal “chamber play” with a good deal of play indeed. The men are in a twilight state, exposed and hidden, too desperate and too hopeful, each thrown back on himself, yet depending on the other.
When they’re joined by a third, it changes from the verbal volleys of a mock tennis match to real theater.
“Fighting is our business,” Edward says. “What do you do about the fighting?”
Adam is a doctor come to study the effects of civil war on young minds. But Michael (Robert Hamm, in a strong, sensitive performance) is a seemingly effete teacher of Old and Middle English whose school has been downsized. Arriving in Beirut to teach English, he’s been kidnapped while at the marketplace to buy pears for a flan. Apolitical and deliberately ignorant of Beirut and the terms of its civil war, a textbook Little Englishman, Michael is himself schooled by his fellow prisoners in the hard lessons they have learned and taught each other during their months in captivity, first one alone, then two together.
Sometimes the tensions between limey and mick flare up from “joking,” casual taunting to battling reprisals of history or outbursts of sheer paranoia. They act out in many ways, and catch themselves and each other when slipping down the narrow crack between honest fear and self-pity. And slowly each is revealed in strength and weakness.
There are games of shooting movies. They mix each other imaginary drinks and toast a future they are brash with made-up confidence over. Their only reading matter is the Bible and the Qu’ran, and D. Anthony Harper’s readings from certain Surahs both find unexpected lines bespeaking dignity and hope: “The Night of Power—greater than a thousand months ... angels and spirits descend; peace it is from night until dawn; peace it is in the house,” giving some sense depth of Muslim scripture. This is paralleled by The Song Of Songs: “Make haste, my beloved. Why have you turned aside from me?”
The unbelieving Irishman, lonesome for his wife, says, ”I can see how someone could go for that.”
But there is more than what is on the sacred page. The English teacher recites a George Herbert poem as a kind of elegy. Comforting one of the others, he tells of his wife’s accidental death. The Irishman recites the names of towns at home with longing. They talk out the letters they can’t write. Sharing everything they have--hopes and self-loathing—they depend on each other, even through wariness.
The simplicity of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me belies an internal motor that revs up more and more as we watch, and absorb. Gemma Whelan’s direction of a good cast follows the acting out of a triple inwardness, sometimes with humor and boisterousness. Paradox follows paradox; the end is neither unexpected nor as expected, not all broad daylight nor complete shadow. There is a streak or two of sentimentality, but gripped by the action of the play, we’re most with these captives the farther away they roam in speech, in scorn—but not denial—of their chains.