As America's war on terror, with the absurdities of Iraq and Guantanamo, drags on into its eighth year, we've probably lost some of our keen interest in the psychological effects of prolonged captivity. When Frank McGuinness' Someone Who'll Watch Over Me was first staged in England and America in 1992, citizens of the United States and the British Empire held secure footing on the moral high ground. Clearly, these unseen Arab captors were cunning, filthy barbarians.
We empathized totally with the heroes they had kidnapped and tossed into a filthy, windowless dungeon. The American doctor Adam was as spotless and innocent as his name; the atheistic Irish journalist, Edward, was the salt of the earth; and the effete, frightened professor of Old English, Michael, developed a backbone forged from British sterling.
In the coming years, America may extricate itself from Iraq, shutter Guantanamo, and forget the shame of Abu Gharib. Right now, as the disastrous Bush Presidency struts toward the exits, exploding its PR rockets of self-congratulation, the needle of our moral compass is still spinning wildly, and we're no longer enthroned on the mountaintop of righteousness. Or fully aboard with those pesky Geneva Conventions. Before reviving this depressing script at their intimate, revolving boxagon space, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre had to ask themselves two huge questions: how and why?
CAST has come up with some well-considered answers -- and a team of fine people to deliver the goods. We can begin with the anteroom and lobby, temporarily retired from mainstage service after the bar was used as Ground Zero for Savage in Limbo last month. Seventeen years ago, CAST might have depicted the world outside the Lebanese prison of Watch Over Me as a torture chamber, an exhibition hall for cutlasses that beheaded hostages, a viewing room for those grisly tapes of masked decapitations, and a gallery of photos spanning the region, depicting jihadist mania, anti-American demonstrations, or the devastation of terrorist bombings.
Instead there are multiple maps of the region and a vast collection of Middle East photos and artifacts collected by retired Army lieutenant colonel Rosalyn Morris, mother of CAST's associate producer Robert Lee Simmons. The Iraqis and Afghanis in her photos evince the stiff shyness and awkwardness of ordinary folk. No bloodthirsty barbarians in sight.
Within the boxagon, configured so that there is a single row of seats at each of the four sides of the revolving stage, director Matt Cosper, set designer Simmons, and the cast get at the human drama with equally apolitical directness. Having witnessed the Charlotte Rep production at Booth Playhouse, I experienced a reassuring click of comfort when Sue and I took our seats and looked at the jail cell at our feet -- and the prisoners chained to its walls. It was the opposite of what I experienced at the Booth, where I faced a claustrophobic set that made the captives look like a colossal entrÈe at a Horn & Hardart automat. I vividly remember bracing myself for a stifling ordeal. So it was, not Rep at its best.
With CAST's open, arena staging, the humor and vitality of these men can breathe as freely as their anger and despair, liberating for me what was a grimly suffocating experience when I first encountered this drama. You're there. When a Lebanese guard contemptuously tosses dinner at the prisoners, you can smell the chicken in the tin plates. The realistic atmosphere helps Cosper to coax the best out of Michael Harris as Edward and Robert Haulbrook as Michael.
As Moving Poets supporters can attest, Harris can tend toward excess and grandiloquence in a large space. But this is his second go-round inside the CAST revolve, after doing the soused Christopher Hitchens character in Omnium Gatherum, and I was fully satisfied with Harris's first-ever embrace of life-sized realism. There are exuberant moments, to be sure, in Harris's performance as Edward copes with the tedium of captivity by fabricating and performing in a make-believe movie -- or in desperately giddy moments verging on madness. For once, his sincerity and vulnerability are as convincing as his vitality and volatility.
Conjuring up Michael for us, Haulbrook can call upon the proper British persona he wielded so effectively as the trusty factotum in Mr. Marmalade a couple of seasons ago. But he softens and expands upon that fine portrait so that Michael's arc of development is as satisfying as Edward's.
Against these compelling characters, Patrick Howsare as Adam comes across as relatively two-dimensional. Blame that on McGuinness, whose familiarity with America and Americans doesn't quite equal his erudition on the Virginia Wade vs. Betty Stove final at Wimbeldon in 1977. Howsare excellently embodies the odd combination of fervid physical fitness and blind religious faith that the playwright views as prototypically American, but his absence in this Lebanese cell carries more weight than his presence.
Doom encased the Rep version of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me back in the '90s, but at CAST, the stage gets a quarter turn with each scene change, and Michael Simmons' fine lighting design comes up on a new day -- with new hope for the hostages. They may not like each other, these men forced to inhale each other's odor for weeks and months. But more than the Bible and the Quran that Adam leaves in his corner, they offer salvation to one another by watching and listening. We're literally right behind them, watching over them all.