Do you ever feel that someone or something is watching over you? That there is some greater power somewhere that, even if it’s not guiding you, is at least aware of your existence?
Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But it’s a question that seems to haunt John, American playwright Annie Baker’s long and gently suspenseful story in which the act of watching over, and the revealing that takes place under scrutiny, is central.
Baker opens her play one late and chilly evening in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few days after the Thanksgiving holiday. Elias and Jenny, a Brooklyn couple making their way back home after visiting Jenny’s parents in Ohio, are here to tour the Civil War sites and, perhaps, smooth over a rough patch in their relationship.
They check into a bed and breakfast run by retired hospital orderly Mertis Katherine Graven, whose home is nothing less than a Maria Kondo nightmare. Everywhere you look there are ornaments, souvenirs, knick-knacks and dolls in period costume. One doll in particular, which sits on a plinth near the top of the stairs, has Jenny completely spooked.
But what the heck, it’s only for a couple of nights, the place is cosy, and Mertis, though she can be a little intense at times, seems friendly enough.
Thus Baker sets her audience up for something sinister to happen. But having paved the way for poltergeists, ghosts of the Civil War dead and the like (I confess, I was half-expecting a doll’s head to start rotating by itself), Baker instead offers a quietly vivid portrait of a millennial couple in crisis and their interactions with two otherworldly senior women in Mertis and her blind and elderly friend Genevieve.
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Presented by Outhouse Theatre Co and meticulously directed by Craig Baldwin (who also helmed the company’s production of Baker’s The Flick in 2018), John is exquisitely designed (by Jeremy Allen) and played to a rhythm we seldom see in a theatre culture that increasingly moves to the beat of cinema.
Time is given its full measure with no short cuts or compression. Silences, never rushed, are sonorous, and when characters exit the space – as when Jenny retreats to her upstairs room to take a handful of painkillers for her menstrual cramps – they are given the temporal space to do something real.
It helps create a palpable sense of the physical world beyond the stage we observe: the bedrooms named after Civil War heroes; the kitchen; Mertis’s husband George, a man too sick to be seen. Moreover, the waiting for someone to return creates a vibrating web of tension.
There’s also a sense of theatricality and mischief, too. Mertis, for example, breaks the fourth wall, opening and closing the red curtains on each act. She regularly moves the hands of the grandfather clock to indicate the passage of time. At one point, it’s as though she is able to fast-forward the passage of the sun.
Baker’s characters are rendered with no less attention to detail and rhythm. James Bell and Shuang Hu (making her theatrical debut here) are entirely believable as the couple coming to the realisation that their relationship adds up to nothing more than the sum of its unhappy parts. Their reveal of the least appealing aspects of each character’s nature is subtle and their minor disagreements – over the provenance of Mertis’s fried eggs, for example – quietly alert us to those bigger issues they can’t air. The scene in which Elias tries to tell a spooky story while Jenny receives pings from her mobile phone is excruciating in all the right ways.
Playing the unfailingly courteous Mertis, a brilliant Belinda Giblin gives us hints of steeliness and profound. She conveys the sense that Mertis is not all she appears with skill and delicacy.
Maggie Blinco is contrastingly coarse-grained and very funny as Genevieve, a woman in her 80s who claims her insanity was the result of being possessed by the malevolent spirit of her husband (one of the ‘Johns’ the play’s title may refer to).
Like The Flick, John will probably polarise. Most, I think, will find it at least beguiling. Others, inevitably, will find the lack of dramatic pay-off disappointing and the whole thing a weird tease. It’s no spoiler to say that the dolls don’t come alive in the end, so don’t sit there hoping.
But surrender yourself to the act of watching, and accept Baker’s story as a mystery of the kind that need not be solved, and I think this play and this intricately-made production of it (which is enhanced, I must add, by Melanie Herbert’s score and Veronique Bennett’s sensitive lighting) might end up being one of your theatre highlights of the year.
The only thing I do know for sure after experiencing this enigmatic work, is that John is already one of mine.