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Stages

In hostage drama, characters forge a connection

From left: Gregg Balla, Sheldon Brown, and Jeff Mahoney in “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.”

Meg O’Brien

From left: Gregg Balla, Sheldon Brown, and Jeff Mahoney in “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.”

Once it seemed among the worst thimgs that could happen in the global struggle with terrorism: ordinary citizens taken hostage and locked away in a windowless room for weeks, months, years.

In “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” Irish playwright Frank McGuinness probes the hearts and minds of three hostages chained to a wall in a Beirut dungeon, their futures unknown. The 1992 play keeps a close focus on Adam, an American doctor; Edward, an Irish journalist; and Michael, a teacher from England, as they laugh and cry and rage against their predicament — and sometimes each other. Their captors are neither seen nor heard.

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“There’s no windows in the cell. You don’t know if it’s morning or night,” says Gregg Balla, who plays Edward in Bad Habit Productions’ staging of the play, which runs through Nov. 16 at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion. “You try to wrap your head around that feeling, and not knowing if anybody who belongs to you is alive or dead, not knowing if they’re looking for you, if anybody even knows that you’re gone. Those kind of questions are my way into what it would be like to be in that situation.”

The play, Balla says, is the story of “that constant battle. Do I allow myself to sink into despair? Is there a way I can combat this? How do we survive in the most dismal, miserable circumstances? How do we look after ourselves? How do we look after others? How is looking after each other, in a sense, looking after ourselves?”

Director A. Nora Long came up with one small tweak that she thinks matters a lot. Instead of just being chained to the wall, as in the script, the characters are also chained to each other.

“There’s a lot of hope and play and joy in the play,” Long says. “If [Jean-Paul Sartre’s] ‘No Exit’ is about ‘hell is other people,’ I think this play is about the hope in other people, the humanity that comes out in the most inhumane situations.”

The chain is “a perfect symbol of captivity and arrested freedom,” says Balla, “while also being at times a safety blanket and a source of comfort, because that chain is the umbilical cord connecting you to the other characters.” (In this production, Adam is played by Sheldon Brown and Jeff Mahoney plays Michael.)

Since 9/11, suicide bombings and other terrorism-related massacres have taken over the headlines, but the playwright was close to the realities of the 1980s and early 1990s, Long says. Over that decade, nearly 100 foreigners were kidnapped and held hostage in Lebanon. Some died in captivity.

“Initially when I read it I thought we could make the time period more ambiguous, but the more that I read it and we all worked on it, it’s a very clear moment in history,” Long says. “People don’t get kidnapped and held for seven years this way anymore in political situations. It’s a much faster and more brutal world now. In that sense we’re sort of locked in a time [with the play]. But I think the themes about people becoming their most human in the most inhumane circumstances transcends time.”

Bearing the chains gives the actors a real feeling for the characters’ struggle, Balla says. “We did a [run-through] last night without them, and just how different that felt was shocking to me — how much the chains become a part of your reality when you’re in this world. It’s its own character, in a way.”

Each of his ankles is shackled to a chain that goes through a central point on the wall and then connects to one of the other characters. “For me to move downstage, they must move upstage, and for them to move downstage, I must move upstage. [We’re] very much connected to each other,” he says.

Out with the “grim’’

Can an adult-themed hostage drama and a children’s show coexist on the same stage? Apparently so. Bad Habit’s “Paint Me a Picture” will run in repertory with “Someone” the next two weekends, on the same set. Yes, you read that right.

Set designer Shelley Barish “has a way of making the grim parts go away,” Bad Habit artistic director Daniel Morris says with a laugh, and she designed the set to make that possible.

Adapted and directed by Morris, “Paint Me a Picture” is intended “to help parents keep their kids creative,” he says. The play’s folk tales focus on a child who overcomes an obstacle by using his or her creativity, such as drawing a picture or doing a dance. And after each of the five matinee performances (Nov. 9-10, 16-17), representatives of Boston area arts organizations will be on hand to offer information about children’s programs.

The shows are free, but you should get a ticket at www.surveymonkey.com/s/XVL6PT3.

Calling Oberon home

The American Repertory Theater has formalized its relationship with some of the offbeat theater groups that have made themselves at home in Oberon, the ART’s club-like second venue in Cambridge. Touch Performance Art, the Boston Circus Guild, and Liars & Believers have all been named artists in residence for 2013-14 at Oberon, increasing the venue’s potential as an incubator for new work in the immersive-theater mode. Productions during the residencies will include Touch Performance Art’s “Acoustica Electronica,” with a dance-club scene and aerial acts set to remixed classical music; the Boston Circus Guild’s 1920s-set “Speakeasy Circus”; and the Liars & Believers troupe’s very American version of the “lcarus” myth.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com
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