‘Guided Tour,” now playing at Hibernian Hall, opens with an evocative, almost ritualistic bit of movement, as a woman in an elegant robe lovingly caresses a beautiful African mask. The symbolism is graceful and powerful, and although Peter Snoad’s drama is interesting, it never quite meets the standard set by that prelude.
Luckily, “Guided Tour” stars Vincent E. Siders, one of Boston’s theater treasures, who offers various facets of one man’s personality with an effortless awareness of the complexity of human nature. Siders conveys a man who is capable of being both volatile and vulnerable depending on the circumstances that are presented.
Siders plays Joe Bell, a curious and ambitious man who, in 1958, talks his way into a job as a tour guide at Elmwood Hall, a Newport “cottage.” We are treated to a snippet from one of Joe’s tours, as he lovingly describes the chandeliers and the workmanship that went into the home built in the early 20th century. Joe’s descriptions, while factual, are also folksy, and we are told his charming presentations made him the most sought-after tour guide at the mansion. It does, however, strain credulity that a black man would have this job in lily white Newport in 1958. With a quick lighting change we shift to the psychiatric unit in a Rhode Island prison where we learn Joe has been living for over a decade after being convicted of burning down the mansion he so lovingly led visitors through.
Susanna Hatch (Melissa Jesser), a law school student working on her thesis, visits Joe in prison in an effort to learn the truth about the fire. Convinced that he was falsely accused, Susanna presses him for details, which Joe is hesitant to give. Suddenly, in a few short lines we learn that Joe and the Elmwood Hall heiress, Lindsay Pettigrew (Elisabeth S. Rodgers) were more than just employer and employee, that Susanna has another agenda for her prison visits, and that Joe makes the beautiful African masks that appeared in the opening scene.
Snoad’s script starts to fall apart here. Despite a scene-stealing performance by Joe’s delightfully quirky psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Rivera (Luis Negron), it’s hard to say what his purpose is in the play. He interviews Susanna to determine if it’s in the best interests of his patient for her to visit again, but the interview becomes a conversation about her dysfunctional family, and it’s hard to see how helpful this is. Although we watch Joe working on one of his extraordinary masks (courtesy of artist and mask maker Eric Bornstein) they are reduced to a prop rather than a potent symbol of Joe’s rich heritage. The mask becomes a way for Joe to connect with the long-dead Lindsay Pettigrew, and again, a scene in which her ghost appears to him as he’s working on a mask offers a level of subtext and complexity the play could use more of.
“Guided Tour” wraps up so quickly it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated. Snoad has started to tell a fascinating story of connection in spite of difference, but his unwillingness to confront the issues head on leaves us with a superficial tour that never provides the depth and detail we need.