Whatever political realities may have prompted Animus Theatre Company’s captivating revival of Irish dramatist Frank McGuinness’s Someone Who’ll Watch over Me, the universally human dimensions of the play are what ultimately justify its extended sentence. The unrelenting image of two, sometimes three, men chained to a wall burns itself into the brain in the course of the play’s considerable runtime until it becomes less an illustration of the characters’ plight than a symbol of the human condition, a dramatization of Plato’s cave allegory or a sly foray into Beckettian theatre of the absurd—sly because the absurdity is achieved naturalistically rather than imposed formally; it is earned through the suffering of the characters and the fully committed actors who play them, their arms weary from set after set of pushups, their legs and eyes red and raw from real and mind-forged manacles.
Driven to distraction, they toast with invisible glasses, drive imaginary cars, play tennis in the presence of the Queen, hop around like bunnies to a childish little song. And these manic games, alternately amusing and disturbing, express their desperation far more effectively than the occasional tearful breakdown. Their unseen captors are referred to, even shouted at, but never seen or heard. In a Kafkaesque twist, the reason for their imprisonment can only be guessed at. And in perhaps the most potent symbol of all, the door to the cell stands open.
There is much to recommend in this gritty, visceral production, from the dirty floor and ochre walls of Scott Tedmon Jones’s set, realistic yet bleakly surreal in the manner of de Chirico, to the masterfully orchestrated ebb and flow of speech, action and emotion under director Alan Langdon’s baton. But by and large it is the brutally honest performances of the actors that keep this infernal machine in motion. As the American, Leif Steinert’s Adam ranges from stoic voice of reason to blubbering defeatist. As Michael, the disoriented latecomer and quintessential Englishman, Michael Broadhurst follows the opposite arc, his upper lip gradually stiffening to deliver some of the play’s funniest and most incisive lines. And Jonathan Judge-Russo’s Edward, chained to center stage and just as central to the story, drives the action in ever-tightening circles with controlled intensity and an impeccable Irish brogue.
The production could benefit from a sound design that does more to suggest a world offstage, perhaps a few ominous sounds at key points to lend credence to their fear of the unseen captors. And there are moments when the tears flow a little too freely, where an effort to restrain them would be more believable and affecting. Finally, the text itself suffers at times from being overly schematic, as it plays out all the possible permutations of persecutor vs. victim in a cell with precisely three anchor points.
But there is so much life and lyricism and breadth of vision in both the text and the production that minor shortcomings are quickly forgotten. What remains, long after the play has ended, is, to quote the director’s own note, a sense of “the resilience of the human spirit,” even under absurd conditions. And since life itself is arguably absurd, regardless of the political or material circumstances under which it plays out, what could possibly be more timely and relevant?