What is the value of a work of art? What is it to the person who views it in a museum? To the person who is charged with its safety and security? And – perhaps most importantly (?) – to the person who made it in the first place?

Those are questions at the heart of Jessica Dickey’s evocative new play The Guard, in which Rembrandt’s painting Aristotle with a Bust of Homer becomes a kind of magic portal that telescopes us back in time, first to Rembrandt’s studio, as he begins work on the painting, and then to Homer, reflecting on the role of poetry in capturing and recording human experience.

L to R: Melinda Helfrich, Andrew May, Stephen James Anthony, and Billy Hepfinger. Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover, Courtesy City Theatre

The receding structure of the play is captured metaphorically in Narelle Sissons’s spare but elegant set, in which frames are nested within frames, and where the action unfolds on what looks like a canvas that has been peeled away from its frame, in a gesture that draws us into the work while simultaneously disconnecting the work from its status as a finished product.

The scenic design pulls us, like the play itself, into a consideration of what a work of art is before it has been framed and hung on a museum wall and made sacred. Museum guard Henry (Andrew May) and his colleague Jonny (Billy Hepfinger) are charged with maintaining a secure and safe environment for the valuable paintings under their care; they have a detailed regimen of inspections and rules, chief among which is the prohibition against touching the art. When a new guard, Dodger (Stephen James Anthony) comes in for his training, he’s itching to have someone touch the famous Rembrandt, both out of a desire to change the way people interact with art and out of an instinct that it might offer them some kind of emotional release or grounding. When he finally convinces Henry and museum visitor Madeline (Melinda Helfrich) to touch the painting with him, the gesture is transformative indeed: they are catapulted into the 17th century and transformed into Rembrandt, his mistress, and his son.

There, not only is the canvas not yet sacred, it’s the object of a good deal of disdain. The contrast between our contemporary reverance for Art-with-a-capital-A and the artist’s rough treatment of the materials of his trade couldn’t be more starkly drawn: Rembrandt despises the work he’s been commissioned to produce and comes close to taking a dump on the canvas.

And yet at both the site of production and the site of reception there is the sense that whether or not one has physical contact with the material object of art, its meaning always remains elusively and maddeningly just out of reach. Rembrandt can’t put his finger on the why of what he does any more than we can; or, as we see in the scene that follows, than Homer could.

That failure, that gap between what we strive to convey and understand and what we can convey and understand, is a quality not just of art, but also of loss and grief. Here, too, the scenic design offers a visual metaphor: with each shift in time and place, another element of the scene design falls or is pulled away. Both Madeline and Henry are dealing with the discombobulations of grief (she over the recent death of her grandmother, he over the imminent demise of his husband, Simon (Raphael Nash Thompson)). Both of them feel themselves to have failed the people they have loved and lost in profound ways. But isn’t it precisely this failure, in the end, that drives the desire to make art and to capture the human experience in some material form?

Tracy Brigden echoes the spare and elegant sensibility of the scenic design in her direction of the play, and she honors the play’s interest in the gulfs that yawn between us, and between us and the works of art we create to try to bridge that gap, by letting the action unfold without attempting to explain or frame what playwright Dickey leaves enigmatic. The excellent cast brings sensitivity and a light touch to their handling of character – May, in particular, captures the hovering disembodiedness that characterizes a person not-coping with caring for a dying loved one with delicate insight. The magic of this play is a quiet one, unfolding in the connections we make between the strivings of the artists whose work has communicated to us across centuries and of the people who find solace, inspiration, and mystery in their work.