Eyes wide open 

Stark production shows Someone’s heart

In the song, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” Ella Fitzgerald croons in smoldering nonchalance, “I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood. I know I could, always be good, to someone who’ll watch over me.” She needs someone, obviously, but it’s unclear by the easiness of her tenor how much. Different scenarios call for varying needs of companionship, after all. But in some instances, like in the case of being held captive, the need would grow with the days—and, perhaps, in very surprising and disconcerting ways.

In service to unnerving incongruence, Fitzgerald’s casual, cat-like jazz functions perfectly when juxtaposed against the bleak image of three hostages chained to a wall in Beirut. That’s exactly the aim of Deborah Pomson, guest director of the Montana Actors’ Theatre’s (MAT) production of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. She employs a stark set design, a grim imprisonment storyline and Fitzgerald’s voice wafting from the speakers to create an ominous mood.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me requires ambitious acting and directing since the stage and scenes never change from the sand-colored walls of a Lebanese cell. Besides the Koran, the Bible, a bottle of water and the chains fastened around their ankles, the three characters—at least in MAT’s version—rely on no other props. This simplicity either makes or breaks Frank McGuiness’ script— the story relies entirely on character dialog.

The three men begin as blank canvases who, over the course of the play, reveal personalities through jokes and diversions, somber secrets, delusional outbreaks, fearful and angry outbursts, unimaginable kindness and, at times, complete and utter mental collapses. What happens outside the realm of the cell is anybody’s guess. The audience learns how and why the hostages ended up in Lebanon, but the rest is hazy. It’s a scenario in a blackhole, and in that way we are forced to see the characters stripped of their worldly context.

Grant Olson, MAT’s artistic director, plays Adam, an American hostage who from the beginning sees his survival as hinging on staying fit; he constantly runs in place and does push-ups. Olson’s a natural in the role, not one to overextend his emotions or bow to stereotypes. Even when the script leans on those stereotypes—the American’s competitiveness, his drive to not crack—Adam’s individuality emerges in his curiosity about the origin of certain words and when he does, finally, lose control and cry for his parents.

Edward, an Irish photojournalist played by Matt Warner, provides the play’s heart. He’s the comic relief. When Edward suffers mental breakdowns or loses his will, the impact feels tenfold simply because his cellmates—and the audience—have come to rely on his sometimes-grinning, sometimes-deadpan humor to guide them through. And guiding is important because the material can be depressing—sometimes downright boring—if
not keenly attended to by the actors. Warner, fortunately, is up to the task. He’s absolutely believable in his eye-rolling sarcasm as much as he is in the moments he gets imaginatively loopy or quietly tender.

Michael, the Middle English professor from England and the last hostage to arrive—played by Brandon Johnson—serves as the prudish mama’s boy. He’s easily harassed and, at least at the start, quick to break. Johnson plays Michael innocently, perhaps to a fault. His reaction to imprisonment seems equal to a pinprick based on the prim fuss he made about it. But as time goes on, Michael evolves and becomes more believable—accent and all. His growth mirrors the whole play, as characters eventually start to play off of each other with more natural reactions and less like ticking off lines.

The actors remain engaging even when some conversational dialog loses its nuance and falls flat. When the three characters drink imaginary cocktails at an imaginary bar and imagine getting caught by their captors who eventually join them in drink, it’s an unflinchingly fabulous moment. When Edward speaks a letter to his wife and says jokingly, “Dearest wife—what was your name again?” he opens up the ability to laugh at the serious situation. And through those serious and not-so-serious moments, certain themes resonate throughout the play: the idea that there are always winners and losers in the world, and the sense that in this cell they will disappear as soon as the world forgets them.

That last part is the central theme of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. Perceptions change in this play, not the situation. Yet, somehow, the men’s changes in perception do change their reality. And the “watching over” concept is ever-present during different points in time: if not in the music, in the dialog, and if not in the dialog, at least in the sense that we, the audience, are watching over the characters and ensuring their very existence.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Jan. 22, through Saturday, Jan. 24, at 8 PM nightly. $15.
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