The building my uncle is renovating is a wide open space barren of furniture, the chipped paint dotted with hungry-looking light sockets. I am with him while he works, because my parents need someone to watch their 6 year-old. I have one task: do not touch the light sockets. They are not yet wired correctly and many are exposed. My uncle reminds me of this over and over, every time he walks past or we even make eye contact. He leaves to make a phone call. I’m standing by one of the dozens of sockets and, yeah, I absolutely have to electrocute myself, so I touch one. When I do, I’m a little freaked out, but somehow satisfied I did.
Jessica Dickey’s The Guard, the latest production at City Theatre, is all about that feeling of tension and release; “Touch the art,” the billboards advertising the show challenge us. We all have a ‘don’t touch the socket’ moment, but what we do in regard to consequence, and how we contextualize our choice to follow the rules we believe in and break the ones we don’t often says a lot about us.
Directed by Tracy Brigden, The Guard follows Henry (Andrew May), a sincere, eminently likable museum guard who isolates himself at his job to avoid coming to grips with his dying, long-time partner Simon (Raphael Nash Thompson). He is training Dodger (Stephen James Anthony), a punk-y new hire at the museum, and discussing a Rembrandt that a patron, Madeline (Melinda Helfrich), is copying so that she, too, can come to grips with her own loss.
In the opening act, it wouldn’t be unfair to label The Guard as a comedy, albeit one that finds its footing most comfortably in the impermanent quality of life. Dialogue in these early scenes is zippy, compelling and occasionally quite weird. Madeline, staring wide-eyed at the Rembrandt, finds herself assailed by an extremely eager Dodger, who really, really wants her to touch the painting. If I can quote the character from memory, I believe his exact line is “Touch it. Touch the art. Touch it. Touch it. Just touch it. Touch the art.”
There is a wonderfully off-kilter chemistry to the performers here that makes for a fun, genuinely effective comedy in some unexpected ways. Jonny (Billy Hepfinger), an armed security guard at the museum, is the exact kind of archetypically boisterous blue collar figure a lesser writer or production would boil down to a classist stereotype, but there is such a confidence to Dickey’s script and Hepfinger’s performance that we’re immediately onboard with him.
I’ll avoid spoilers, but the play does twist dramatically into a very different kind of play at a few points, transforming The Guard’s theme of coming to grips with death into a deeper conversation about the nature of legacy and emotional connection throughout human history. Narratively, these moments are gorgeous. As the play’s subtext begins to bubble ever closer to the play’s forefront, we’re not only invited to examine familiar historical figures with fresh eyes but to also re-contextualize the conflicts between the first set of characters. These are the kinds of big, smart, cool moments that make you want the play to transmogrify into a person so you can get coffee with it afterwards and figure out this whole life thing, man.
The play does have its moments of contrivance; in an attempt to split up the cast so that they may experience disparate subplots and conflicts that necessitate the absence of at least two of the four active cast members, Madeline suddenly feels ill. There is a somewhat mechanical nature to the way characters appear and disappear perfectly at the end of each meaningful conversation that I found distracting; similarly, later acts with different characters aren’t as confidently penned as the brilliant first act, and I felt fatigued by a ‘tell-don’t-show’ monologue that eats most of the third act. Still, as the play’s weaker moments still bolster the main conflict, they’re fairly easy to look past.
Besides the consistently honest quality of the performances, I also admire Tracy Brigden’s direction. It felt to me as if, whatever a scene called for tonally, digging into the emotional truth of the characters was the sole concern. Even in the play’s goofiest, rom-com-y moments, there’s this sense that knowing and expressing what it is that drives these people is the only thing that matters, and the pleasantly simple stage design (Narelle Sissons) reinforces our focus. Put simply, this is a play with urgency, and character building matters most.
The Guard’s commitment to dive as deep as possible into the tantalizingly simple feeling of breaking a rule for the sake of it makes for a fascinating, emotionally trenchant experience. ‘Touching the art’ versus ‘protecting the art’ is a metaphoric conflict that ties us all together in small and real way, even if we don’t consciously think of it. The Guard gives us the language to do so.
The Guard runs on City Theatre’s Mainstage. For tickets and more information, click here.