Art is a portal, and in Jessica Dickey’s world premiere meta-meta comedy The Guard, that doorway is both literal and figurative. It’s a play about a painting about a philosopher . . . but isn’t, using a masterpiece and our feelings toward it to capture the human experience. The dialogue is about art . . . but isn’t, the painting a prism through which each character struggles with the complexities of love, loss, and legacy. Author and play deservedly won the National Theater Conference’s 2015 Barrie and Bernie Stavis award for outstanding emerging playwrights, and The Guard is sure to be an early work in a long and successful career.
The performance opens in a modern day art museum where three characters cross paths in the shadow of Rembrandt and Homer: a dapper museum guard, a young art student, a ruffian trainee. When the museum guard abandons decades of training and decorum to touch a masterpiece, the audience tumbles into the worlds behind the canvas, visiting the artist, the inspiration, and the custodian respectively. At times rough around the edges, the play is ultimately relatable. If Dickey misses some opportunity to lay bare the open wounds punched by life, her play deftly exposes the twining of grief and the feeling of failure, of love and sacrifice, of beauty and brokenness. All portrayed with a comic wisdom.
It is an intimate story for an intimate theater, the shadow of Lincoln’s assassination over contemporary musings perfectly melding with the drama onstage. If jarring to hear the philosopher Homer drop the f-bomb in Ford’s Theater, the abrasive expletive in fine surroundings dovetails with the play’s depiction of messy lives lurking behind the chef d’oeuvre’s ordered symmetry. The set itself is a work of art, majestically rotating through lives and centuries. The acting is commendable. Mitchell Hebert is luminescent as a museum guard sharing the story of a life even as another slips away. He reflects: “The painting doesn’t change, you change. It’s happening. Right now.” Like the painting, this play will be different things to different people, and that’s the beauty of it.
As one character muses, art is such a fragile thing, but it holds truths, worlds. These are worlds you won’t want to miss. Get your tickets. It’s happening. Right now.
Tickets for The Guard available at www.fords.org or Ticketmaster at (800) 982-2787 for performances through October 18, 2015. Go early to explore the historic Fords Theater, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004 (202-347-4833).
*Images credit Scott Suchman for Ford’s Theatre