It doesn’t sound like the most action-packed evening of theater – three hostages chained to the floor of a cell in Beirut for two hours.
Yet if you prefer your action to be more cerebral and psychological, the Interplayers season opener is loaded with incident.
Irish playwright Frank McGuinness pulls off an impressive feat of imagination as he digs deeply into the raw psyches of these hostages. Director Nike Imoru and an intense three-man cast somehow manage to make this dark, confined little world seem as open and fast-paced as Center Court at Wimbledon.
In fact, two of the hostages pass the time by reliving every serve and volley of Virginia Wade’s victory at Wimbledon.
That’s not the only vivid event that takes place in this dark Beirut cell. Here are some other things they do to relieve the oppression of time, fear and loneliness:
•They “shoot movies” of stories they improvise.
•They argue points trivial (football standings) and weighty (the oppression of Ireland by England).
•They make each other imaginary drinks.
•They give each other much anticipated “presents” on Christmas day.
•They imagine themselves flying over Europe, England and Ireland in a flying car (all while singing the theme song to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”).
•They sing “Amazing Grace” and nursery songs about rabbits.
•They also sing some haunting Gershwin lyrics that express their deep yearning for their wives and families, as well as their desperate desire for a guardian angel: “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see/I hope that she turns out to be/Someone who’ll watch over me.”
Imoru’s deft touch is evident from the opening moments of this production, as she segues from one hostage’s off-key rendition of the Gershwin tune into the pure soprano of Ella Fitzgerald. The first represents their ragged reality; the second the idealized world of their imaginings.
Imoru and lighting designer Swan Laws occasionally turn this dark, mostly bare stage into three separate pools of light, spotlighting their isolation. At other times, the lights merge to symbolize their reliance on each other.
Their desperate need for connection is, in the end, what McGuinness explores most deftly. In the first act, we see that Irish journalist, Edward, played by Michael Maher, has forged a deep bond with the American doctor, Adam, played by Charles Gift. A new hostage, the proper British teacher, Michael, played by Bill Caisley, is almost seen as an intruder.
In the second act, the relationships change in profound ways.
All three actors have more than enough craft and depth to make us believe in their characters. I won’t single out any of the three, because this script is written and directed as a classic ensemble piece. The play is refreshingly devoid of speeches and histrionics; the conversations are more like a tennis match, with serve and return, lob and volley. All three have all of the art and skill necessary to keep the match moving quickly.
This play is by no means bereft of larger themes. The Bible and the Koran are center stage, both figuratively and literally – the two books sit on a low pedestal in the middle of the room.
Yet McGuinness never makes this play into an expository discussion of the Middle East, or war, or of terrorism.
The play is about something more fundamental – the way people stay sane even in an insane situation. That’s a theme that will never age.