By Pamela Morse
For The Birmingham News
Good theater takes you to a place you’ve never been. Great theater takes you to a place place you’d never want to go, and makes you glad you went there. That’s what makes Frank McGuinness’s “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” a great play.
A concrete room in Beirut where three men remain chained to a wall, captive in some unseen war, is clearly a place nobody would want to be. But when the third act finally wraps up, you’ll thank McGuinness for the long and arduous trip.
The second production of City Equity Theatre, “Someone” opened Thursday in the makeshift space of The Playhouse in downtown Birmingham, with only a small audience of theatrefolk in attendance.
Eerily timely and still-unfortunately- timeless, the 1992 play is set against the stark walls of a cell. The only characters are an Irish journalist, an American doctor, and a British literature professor.
As the robust American, Alan Gardner, co-founder and co-artistic director of City Equity turns in a strong performance. He is matched by Jonathan Fuller, who plays the Englishman with a winning mix of timidity and strength.
It is the performance of UAB Professor Dennis McLernon that sneaks up on you. In the first act, McLernon seems to be all bluster and Irish brogue, but, by the end of the second act , he takes on new dimensions and stealthily begins to steal this smart show.
Based on this production it would appear that City Equity Theatre is out to prove to Birmingham that Equity means something. Directed by and starring only members f Actors Equity Association, this production is clearly not the work of amateurs.
York has assembled a serious cast to put on a serious play, on an unlikely stage in the back of a prop and costume shop. “Someone” is reminiscent of the fine shows staged by the short-lived Birmingham Repertory Theatre more than a decade ago.
McGuinness’s Tony-nominated play, critically acclaimed here and abroad, is based on the true story of kidnapped Irishman, Brian Keenan, who spent four years as a hostage in Lebanon. The play also has threads of autobiography: McGuinness is am Irish professor who specialized in middle and old English, like his British character.
The only flaws in the opening night performance were that some of the lines were lost, and that the rumble of trucks passing on Third Avenue North swallowed a few more lines of dialogue in the play in which the words are everything. The whispering can be remedied: the traffic noise will only get worse, especially on nights when the Alabama Theatre across the street is abuzz.
City Equity Theatre has invested vast amounts of time and talent into this production. A reciprocal investment is being asked on the part of the audience.
“Someone” runs almost three hours, and requires a substantial amount of thought and attention. We think it’s worth it.