Review: ‘John’ by Annie Baker at A.C.T. (*****)

by Charles Kruger

From l to r: Stacey Yen as Jenny, Georgia Engel as Mertis, and Joe Paulik as Elias in Annie Baker’s “John” at A.C.T. (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

A Ghost Story Without The Ghosts

All four of the present characters in Annie Baker’s remarkable play, “John,” are haunted: by dolls, by the supernatural, by history, childhood, by past loves, tragedy, and, perhaps, even God, not to mention the mysterious “John” of the title, who does not appear in the play at all.

The surface plot is quite simple and straightforward: A young couple on a cross country drive stop for a weekend at a Gettysburg bed and breakfast so that the boyfriend can indulge his childhood passion for Civil War history, which his girlfriend  does not share. Over the weekend, their relationship seems to unravel.

But Annie Baker, a gifted playwright who has been compared to both Becket and Chekhov, does not truck in the simple and straightforward.

“John,” like Baker’s previous plays, features long silences, extended moments where nothing is said, and action is  played out in real time, as when Georgia Engel, in the role of Mertis, the eccentric bed and breakfast owner, moves slowly about turning on or off the lights or otherwise arranging things for her guests. In another long and silent sequence, Mertis’s elderly, blind friend Genevieve (Ann Mcdonough) makes her slow way about  the inn using a cane. Nothing dramatic happens: Mertis chatters to her guests, the young couple bicker about their weekend plans and argue about a possibly continuing affair, Genevieve describes an episode of madness in her past. Eventually, the young couple leave, perhaps having seen the dissolution of their coupling, although nothing is really settled.

This sense of waiting (reminding us of Samuel Beckett), of timelessness, of the boredom and sameness of day-to-day-living is a characteristic of Baker’s work that divides the critics. Some (like me) are fascinated by the depth of insight, realism, and authentic feeling this approach is able to draw from the actors; others balk at the length (“John” runs for just over three hours) and find the effect dull. Indeed, on opening night, a few patrons (not unexpectedly) left, puzzled, at the first intermission.

For me, and, I think, many others willing to open themselves up to this kind of work, “John” was endlessly fascinating, more like a symphony or a lyric poem than a narrative play. It is all mood and numinousity. What we get is not so much what happens to the people in the play (very little happens), but, rather, how these people feel, in their deepest selves. While other playwrights tell us interesting stories about what happens in people’s lives, Baker tells us what it is like to live those lives, and, by analogy, helps us to feel more deeply our own sense of being alive and the wonder of that.

In the world of “John” what happens to anybody is not simple. While most writers will set out to fascinate us with a series of events, one causing the next, creating a sense of inevitability, Baker constructs her reality with a series of themes, feelings, abstract sensations, mysterious connections, hidden interactions, something like a tarot reading or other kind of divination. It’s witchcraft.

“John” is the abusive ex-lover of the young girlfriend, but also the abusive dead husband of the blind Genevieve, and perhaps all men to all women, including the men who waged war in the town of Gettsyburg and lent their names (Jackson, Chamberlain) to the rooms in the B&B. It is no accident that the one room with a female name (the Jennie Wade) is merely a hidden closet off one of the others.

Although nothing actually supernatural occurs in the play, the sense of a haunting is overwhelming. There are the ever-watching dolls and miniature scenes which decorate the B&B (creepy), the Christmas tree lights and the player piano that mysteriously go on and off, the stormy weather, and the sybyl-like blind neighbor, slightly mad. On top of all that, the owner of the B&B speaks of a mysterious, unseen husband who may or may not exist. None of this gets explained.

The dialogue touches on matters of faith and the sense of being watched (by God? by an angel? by a favorite doll? by a demon?) and references an astonishing collection of haunting images and ideas. A few selections from a helpful glossary, provided in A.C.T.’s dramaturgical magazine “Words On Plays” (always recommended) can give an idea of this. They include: Benedictine Monks, gloaming, H. P. Lovecraft, Cthulu, Neoplatonism, the Memory Wheels of Giordano Bruno, theologian John Henry  Newman, the fantastical opera, “The Tales of Hoffman,” and the Underground Railroad. I believe I also recognized a few passages of Enochian, the “angelic language” that John Dee, the Elizabethan occultist and astrologer, claimed to have discovered in his practice of ritual magic.

All this is heady stuff when used to tell the simple story of a troubled relationship. But, is anything, ever, as simple as it seems? Are we not all haunted in ways we don’t even suspect?

“John” is so rich in thematic material, in metaphor, in poetry, that it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to capture the experience in a review.

Suffice it to say, I have never seen anything like it and I would love to see it again and again.

I would be remiss, too, not to mention the excellent work of all four actors, especially Georgia Engels who recreates the role for which she won an Obie in New York for the original production. The set by Marsha Ginsberg, costumes by Jessie Amoroso, lighting by Robert Hand, and sound by Brendan Aanes are all brilliant. Director Ken Rus Schmoll has a light touch, but manages to keep things fascinating for the entire length of this three hour performance.

I really can’t guess whether you will find it enthralling or dull, but I urge you—strongly—to watch it  for yourself.

“John” continues at A.C.T.’s Strand Theatre through April 23, 2017. For further information click here.

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Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“John” by Annie Baker, produced by A.C.T. Director: Ken Rus Schmoll. Scenic Designer: Marsha Ginsberg. Costume Designer: Jessie Amoroso. Lighting Designer: Robert Hand. Sound Designer: Brendan Aanes. Propos Master: Jacquelyn Scott.  

Cast: 

Mertis: Georgia Engel. Genevieve: Ann Mcdonough. Elias: Joe Paulik. Jenny: Stacey Yen.

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