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City Theatre's 'The Guard' delves into the universal appeal of the 'untouchable'

| Friday, March 10, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Melinda Helfrich as Madeline, Andrew May as Henry, Stephen James Anthony as Dodger, Billy Hepfinger as Jonny in 'The Guard.'
Kristi Jan Hoover
Melinda Helfrich as Madeline, Andrew May as Henry, Stephen James Anthony as Dodger, Billy Hepfinger as Jonny in 'The Guard.'
Raphael Nash Thompson in 'The Guard.'
Kristi Jan Hoover
Raphael Nash Thompson in 'The Guard.'
Melinda Helfrich as Madeline and Stephen James Anthony as Dodger in 'The Guard.'
Kristi Jan Hoover
Melinda Helfrich as Madeline and Stephen James Anthony as Dodger in 'The Guard.'

Creative people can find inspiration in the most unremarkable places.

For playwright Jessica Dickey, her latest play came about from a visit to an art gallery. But it wasn't the art that aroused her interest.

“I was in a museum in London, at the National Gallery, having an encounter with a painting, just being very moved,” says Dickey, who noticed a guard sitting nearby. “And I realized his job was to watch people like me come in and out and encounter the art. As well, he's sitting there looking at this painting all day. … And that began the turn key for writing ‘The Guard.'”

“The Guard,” the latest production of City Theatre Company, runs through April 2. The play is the third of Dickey's to be produced by City, following “The Amish Project” and “Charles Ives Take Me Home.”

On the surface, the story centers on that universal urge we all have — especially when we're not allowed — to touch. The lead character of “The Guard” is compelled to touch a famous Rembrandt painting that's under his protection. The taboo act sends him on a journey of self-knowledge. And the play sets off on a journey through time, visiting two other periods. In all, the five actors play 10 different characters, including Rembrandt and Homer.

For research, Dickey interviewed guards at the National Gallery in London and spent a day at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. And she spoke with other museum guards unofficially.

“That is a great thing about being an artist and being a writer,” says Dickey, who grew up in Waynesboro. “It can cut through a layer of socialization when people are, ‘Why do you want to know?' People were really generous about their time. … It was neat to learn about this kind of subculture of being a guard in a major museum. It was cool.”

Playing the lead of Henry, the guard in question, Andrew May appreciates the depth Dickey puts into her work.

“There's always the peeling of the onion when you approach any play,” he says. “And this one is a pretty dense onion. You have to keep peeling those layers back and seeing what it's really about and what's in the middle there.”

Henry's partner is dying, but he feels disconnected from it.

“He feels guilty about that and he's searching for some kind of answer, and it comes from a form of catharsis through the art he deals with on a daily basis.” When Henry finally gives in and touches the art, it opens up a part of him.

And then there's Rembrandt — also played by May — and the problems in his life of financial burdens and artistic integrity.

Part of the fun for May, who usually acts in classical works, is the pleasure of a new work, a fresh character he can make his own.

Another factor is returning to City Theatre for his fourth show directed by Tracy Brigden. Regular theatergoers will remember his performances in “Fiction,” “Shooting Star” and “Time Stands Still.”

“It's really important for any artist in any medium to feel as though they have an artistic home. That they go there and feel like — wow — I can actually produce there. And City Theatre has always been that for me. It's always been a happy place for me.”

Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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