“The Guard” is Surprisingly Powerful, Dark.

When shuffling into the welcoming arms of City Theater’s production of Jessica Dickey’s “The Guard,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. From the title, it lead me to believe I was about to partake in a comedic play about art, and the touching of it. I was surrounded by familiar faces, many other reviewers looking at a simplistically exquisite set courtesy of Narelle Sissons, mirroring the imagery of what I see on a weekly basis during my travels around the city. So much art, so many people, so much free cheese. But what’s behind it all? What’s behind the motives of conjecture and philosophical clarity? One could only imagine, until tonight.

The opening line echoed Henry, a distilled man with a dying partner at home, pontificating about the revelations he uncovered while gazing upon a famous painting from some guy named Rembrandt. Shortly after, Henry’s co-worker, Jonny the security guard (the kind with a gun), stumbled into him sitting alone in the dark, talking to himself.

The two exchange pleasantries before settling down into their morning routines, and after a short while they’re introduced to a wildly rebellious new employee, Dodger, an artist with a penchant for street art, colorful hair, and piercings…Oh the piercings. We’re also introduced to the muted brilliance of Madeline, a copyist seeking catharsis through painting. The four collide in a spirited amalgamation of spite, rage, fear, and loathing. It all works together in a brilliantly volatile dynamic.

And in the end, explode it shall. Don’t touch the art, they say. Don’t.Touch.The Art.

Andrew May as Henry & Billy Hepfinger as Jonny

Soon after everyone is introduced, the narrative of the story begins to build, for what I thought was going to be a relatively light-hearted affair, as the comedic timing was spot on and fluent throughout the “present” moment. But the tables turned as the timelines, and time travels began to unwind, for what ultimately transformed into a gut-wrenching red carpet of human suffering and self-realization. Coping with loss, looking death in the eye, and finally unveiling that “touching the art” really touched our deepest and darkest fears.

As the movements of space continued to jostle from present to past, the characters became frighteningly human, and for a blip, I was lost in reality; Gripping the fear that I, too, don’t want my beloved person to die. Not now, not ever.

In the moment where Henry cries out to his partner, “Simon, don’t die, don’t die, please don’t die,” a collective heartbreak dripped from the stage and out into the audience. Simon, in that continuum, was our wife, husband, son, daughter, brother or sister. All of the art, all of the acting, became a moment of solidarity that echoed far beyond the final act. It became who are as people, and told us how real the dance with death is, and not one will escape its grasp.

Raphael Nash Thompson as Simon, Andrew May as Henry

Andrew May, who played Henry, and Rembrandt delivered a pensive performance that spoke to his morose infatuation with art, and the clarity it brought to his current state of affairs. May performed flawlessly and delivered very real-world emotions to the stage, challenging the audience to look into themselves for what they truly lack.

Billy Hepfinger as Jonny, and Martin kept the crowd rolling with his well-timed quips, Bawston accent, and overall simple-minded demeanor. Good at the core, he meant no harm. A product of the war, he now fought against the most egregious act, touching the art. Hepfinger was a breath of fresh air.

Each performer masterfully played dual roles, as the story line did its best Quantum Leap reprise without actually dragging Scott Bakula out of retirement.

The Guard is a double shot of humanity, mixed with well-defined wit, and an overt sense of enlightenment. A must see for any theater goer looking to explore the labyrinth of the human effect.

The Guard runs through April 2nd. For more information, visit City Theatre online.

Photography: Kristi Jan Hoover

Melinda Helfrich as Henny, Andrew May as Rembrandt