Scott Turow said, “The purpose of narrative is to present us with complexity and ambiguity.” Whatever one thinks of Mr. Turow’s literary efforts, that statement came to mind when watching the D.C. premiere of “John” at Signature Theatre. Written by Annie Baker (author of “Flick” – and another D.C. premiere at Signature a couple of seasons back), this is a play that revels in ambiguity. As directed by Joe Calarco, even the set exudes ambiguity; because as full of kitsch and tchotchkes as it is, there is a sense of containment about it; not once did I have a concern about the guests at the B&B or the hostess and her sister knocking into something.
There is genius in a script that lets the words weave a cover of lies and half-truths while unraveling in the spaces between.
And this show is about the ambiguities of relationships. There is so much hidden, so many secrets, so much said in the silences and body language that spoken language can be frustrating. There is genius in a script that lets the words weave a cover of lies and half-truths while unraveling in the spaces between. Everyone has something they need to reckon with, and the truth of how hard that is to do gradually fills the stage, even more than the hundreds of tchotchkes.
Jonathan Feuer plays Elias, and Anna Moon plays Jenny, a couple from Brooklyn on their way back from visiting her family in the Mid-West who stop for a couple of days at Gettysburg. Both actors capably embody hipster-chic, which provides a slowly-unraveling cover for their very rocky relationship.
It is always a delight to see Nancy Robinette (Mertis, the proprietor of the B&B) on stage, as it is to see Ilona Dulaski (Genevieve, Mertis’ blind sister). The chemistry between these two veteran actors enhanced the bond their characters shared as sisters who had seen their share of hard times. They made it look effortless.
All members of this cast do beautiful work in bringing the vulnerabilities of their characters to life. Whether it’s the petulance and manipulation of Elias, the distancing and then sudden nurturing of Jenny or the hints of breaking apart in the sisters, one feels that there is much pain and fear at the bottom of many of the behaviors. They earn our sympathy, even as we are slightly repelled by them.
The set is brilliantly designed by Paige Hathaway (who also designed “The Gulf” at Signature). As the main floor of the B&B, it is cozy, charming, and sort of haunted. There may be a ghost—a radio turns on and off, a player piano suddenly bursts into life, the Christmas tree decides rather petulantly not to turn on at one point—but other signs of haunting appear only to individual characters. The shadows are alive on this set.
There was one small issue at the beginning of the play when Mertis takes the young couple up to their room. The brief conversation in the upstairs, with the characters unseen, was a little difficult to fully hear. But this interlude only lasted a few minutes.
It is a long play but will reward theatre-goers who enjoy challenging works that demand thinking and feeling in equal terms.
Running Time: Three hours and 20 minutes with two 15-minute intermissions.
“John” runs from April 3 – April 29, 2018, in Signature Theatre’s MAX Theatre. For more information, please click here.