An American, an Irishman, and an Englishman are held captive in the same Lebanese prison cell. In one corner, the American furiously counts off as he performs push-ups, proposing that he and his cellmate condition themselves for physical “competitions.” Opposite him is the Irishman, who recounts a horse race in which an Irish mare won against all odds; she was, he insists, the most magnificent creature that ever lived. Soon after, the Englishman is tossed in and—after he realizes where he is—laments his failed attempt at making pear flan. He had planned to serve it to the dinner guests whom he was expecting on the day he was captured; it was going to be divine.
If you’re waiting for a punch line, there isn’t one. Although the caricatures of the different countrymen receive a handful of hesitant laughs, this isn’t an exercise in dark humor. Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, which earned two Tony nominations for its New York debut in 1993, is an accessible yet disturbing glimpse at life, the inevitability of suffering and what it takes to survive.
In a fashion familiar to the playwright, the show is partly a study of homosocial institutions. None of the men are homosexual—at least not apparently—but their camaraderie is much deeper than friendship. Adam (the American) has a fiancée, Edward (the Irishman) has an estranged wife and two children, and Michael (the Englishman) is a heartbroken widower. Before Michael arrived, Adam and Edward had spent two months together, every minute of every day. They know each others’ stories, finish each others’ sentences and squabble like a crotchety old couple. They’re intimate because of proximity, but also by choice.
When Adam disappears from the cell one night, Edward voluntarily admits that he loved Adam. He was kind, strong and intelligent—even “beautiful to look at.” Adam brought a sense of security to the cell; they were a team and they dreamed of visiting one another after their envisioned release. As if to affirm Edward’s feelings for Adam, Michael explains that his father, a military man, had told him that before the Spartans went to battle, the soldiers would comb each others’ hair. “The enemy laughed at them for being effeminate,” he says, “but the Spartans won the battle.” Just like the Spartans, Adam and Edwards’ tenderness toward each other was crucial to their survival.
While Edward may not have intended to bond with Adam as he did, he is aware of how vital communication is amongst his cellmates. Adam is a solitary man who’d rather bury his thoughts in the only books provided by the captors: the Bible and the Qur’an. Like his daily push-ups, reading becomes a form of meditation, a way to quiet his mind. He only speaks when Edward draws him out. Edward insists that they defy their captors, fighting them in the only way that they can: by expressing their thoughts. Their enemy is silent, but they are different. They cannot forget who they are and where they came from. Edward encourages storytelling, whether the tales be personal accounts or legend—anything will do. When one mentions missing something—a luxury like alcohol or films—Edward imagines it aloud and his childlike enthusiasm becomes contagious. At one point, the trio is in a bar, downing vodka martinis while offering a glass to the watchers behind the one-way mirror. At another, they are shooting movies: Three Bullocks in a Cell in Lebanon and A Nun Comes to Beirut, starring Madonna. It’s as if Edward has seen Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good, in which the following is preached: “In prison conditions, theater”—or, in this case, film—“can be hugely heartening.”
Perhaps Edward’s buoyancy is cause for concern, but his actions are not indicative of insanity; below the surface, his emotions are typical and well-intentioned. He regrets not seeing his children enough, mourns for Adam, who he assumes is dead, and despite his caustic comments, Edward genuinely cares about Michael’s wellbeing.
That said, there is something unusual about the way in which he carries himself through such a seemingly hopeless situation. Anyone who has seen Frank McGuinness’s earlier play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, is familiar with Kenneth Pyper, the provoking, outwardly fearless soldier who is the sole survivor of his 36th Ulster Division. There is a hint of Kenneth in Edward. Like Kenneth, he’s constantly prodding his cellmates. He makes grandiose claims, blaming Michael for the Great Famine, mass starvation that occurred 150 years prior. And while he’s generally kinder to Adam, he does criticize his psychological profession of “examining the effects of war on innocent young minds” as being “very profitable” and “very American.” He likens Adam’s work to that of the Italian photographers he remembers, who snapped shots of the bloodied corpses of children during the Troubles of Northern Ireland, a vile, insensitive practice.
In the end, one sees that there is a purpose to his antagonizing, sometimes feverish behavior. There is the occasional existential rumination, but overall, Edward submits to the idea that he is living in hell and that the only way to keep from going mad is to be himself, to act as he were living in daylight. He struggles to remain the same feisty Dubliner that he once was. A stubborn man, he had a mind immune to manipulation (unless, of course, he was the one manipulating it). His charades—and, more importantly, his will to keep them going—might just be what it takes to make it out breathing.
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me showed at the Canal Park Playhouse from June 20 – July 14, 2012.Photography by Sarah L Perlin