Theater is traditionally thought to be a place of communion, a meeting of like-minded souls who crave a good story. Playwright Annie Baker turns that expectation on its head, along with so many other theater conventions, with her quiet, sad and still play John, currently getting under your skin in a brilliant area premiere at Signature Theatre under the sensitive direction of Joe Calarco.
Rather than belonging, you sit there for what seems like a precious eternity watching the loneliness puddle around you like a pleated skirt, the prolonged silences stretching before you with no actor or playwright prompted to fill them or distract you from that emptiness of sound and motion. We bear the characters’ isolation and our own—like mirror images this aloneness reflects back and forth between actors and audience.
The mystical miracle of John is that we can sit with that profound loneliness and be okay. Better, even. As one character says after what can only be described as a cosmic experience: “I felt less alone being alone. I mean I felt more lonely but less alone. No. Sorry. More alone but less lonely. (pause) Less alone in my aloneness.”
That’s what great works of art—like this play—do. They provide a peculiar comfort that we may not completely understand or be able to put into words. It’s a divine paradox—the idea of something outside of you making you feel less lonely as you remain, in essence, inexorably alone.
Heady, spiritual stuff but another wonder of John and this transcendent production is that it couldn’t be delivered in a more prosaic setting, rendered in suffocating, cozy detail by scenic designer Paige Hathaway. Who knew that a tchotchke-filled B&B in ghost-haunted Gettysburg would be a nexus of acuity?
Certainly not young Brooklynite couple Jenny (Anna Moon) and Elias (Jonathan Feuer), who are traveling home from Thanksgiving with Jenny’s family and trying to patch up their unraveling relationship with a romantic weekend at a Civil War-era B&B run by the endlessly gracious Mertis (Nancy Robinette).
Their sour spats about small things—annoying eating sounds and cellphone pings—hint at the bigger issues eating at them. Mertis (and the audience) can overhear their upstairs arguing but not quite make out what they’re saying. Their muffled anger sounds almost ghostly in an old house seemingly haunted with restless spirits; strange creaks and groans populate the air and the player piano and Christmas tree seem to have a mind of their own, as do certain rooms, Mertis points out.
Elias was a boyhood Civil War buff and eagerly haunts the battlefields, ghost tours and historic sites while Jenny is more drawn to Mertis, not just your average warmly accommodating innkeeper, but also something of a mind reader and spiritualist, as well as a writer of purplish prose. Her daily journaling of sunsets contain violently vivid language you don’t expect from a late middle-aged lady with her graying hair tidily pulled back in a ponytail.
Caught in an icky domestic drama (Jenny had an affair with a man only known as John; Elias believes he can’t trust her anymore because of her lying), it is no wonder she’d rather pass the time with Mertis and her equally fascinating friend, Genevieve (Ilona Dulaski), a blind woman of a certain age who is startlingly alive, salty and brusquely to the point—her entrance is notable for her booming description of “the time I went crazy.”
Both women are equally at home in the otherworldly plain as they are perched on Mertis’ Victorian sofa eating Vienna Fingers. The membrane between this world and the next is thin and porous, as Mertis talks of feeling like you’re being watched by something bigger than yourself and Genevieve straightforwardly expounds on the time her ex-husband took control of her brain (a move which landed her in the loony bin) and dictated her thoughts from either side of the grave.
closes April 29, 2018
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Mertis and Genevieve live fully in the present, but remind you of people from Memento Mori societies that were prominent in Civil War America and the Victorian era, where there was so much death that you just had to make it familiar and comforting. These societies not only remembered death, but embraced it through death photographs, socializing in graveyards, and wearing death-themed jewelry and accessories. The philosophy behind Memento Mori was that your earthly life is much more spiritual and fulfilling if you reflect on your mortality.
In contrast to Jenny and Elias, who embody the 21st century ideal of doing anything but considering your mortality, Mertis and Genevieve straddle these realms with ease and good humor. And in Mertis’ case, with graciousness that in this callous age seems almost a lost art.
That may be due to the gifted naturalness of Robinette’s performance. The spiritual side of Mertis appears unaffectedly God-given, while the bustling and practical innkeeper side is rooted in emotional honesty. There is never a false moment.
Dulaski’s role is showier, but she grounds Genevieve in brash authenticity that makes her a life force without being contrived. Jonathan Feuer agilely manages the changing depths of Elias. At first, you brush him off as a testy, self-hating Jew always looking for a slight and a fight. But then Feuer shows us Elias’ other aspects—loving and affection-craving, capable of moving introspection.
Anna Moon’s Jenny is likable on the surface, although that surface is colored and shadowed by Elias’ accusations. You start out siding with Jenny, stuck in a B&B with a spoilsport boyfriend, until her amiable façade begins to crack and you see the secrets and less toothsome aspects of her personality.
With John, you have to be willing to not only sit with your loneliness, but be with it for longer than the brisk 90-minute running time of most modern plays. This can cause discomfort—empty seats grew in number with each intermission. But on the other side of unease is luxury—the luxury of time spent with women characters in central roles who have all the time in the world to tell their stories, and who dwell peacefully in silence, the watchers and the watched.
John by Annie Baker . Director: Joe Calarco . Featuring Ilona Dulaski, Jonathan Feuer, Anna Moon, Nancy Robinette . Scenic Design: Paige Hathaway. Costume Design: Debra Kim Sivigny. Lighting Design: Andrew Cissna. Sound Design: Kenny Neal. Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.