|Stacey Yen, Georgia Engel & Joe Paulik|
Silence speaks loudly and often in Annie Baker’s 2015 play, John – so often that without all the periods of pause, the three-hour play might be half-to-two-thirds that length. But it is those moments when the characters are silently taking in what was just said, when someone is thinking if and how to respond to another’s remark, or even when there is no one physically at all in the parlor of the B&B that some of the richest segments of this fascinating play occur. That is when we as audience really notice the dozens of eyes watching us -- eyes from dolls of all sorts scattered with seemingly hundreds of tchotchkes throughout the Gettysburg, PA bed and breakfast. They are watching with expressions that never change, making their judgments, and logging their unsaid opinions – while at the same time the question keeps being raised by the B&B host to her guests, “Do you ever feel watched?”
American Conservatory Theatre presents a thoroughly magical, beautifully mystical, and sometimes heavenly mysterious production of Annie Baker’s John, a play in which loneliness does not always mean feeling totally alone. Plot is not an important element of the play, but the movement of time progresses the play’s momentum steadily forward such that there is never anything close to a boring minute – even when nothing much is actually happening.
Like Chekov, Annie Baker forces us to pause and notice the ballet of daily life, to stop and listen to the unsaid as well as the said, and to admire the beauty of people’s spontaneous stories, sighs, and smiles. Humor emerges in ways most endearing. Pathos occurs in ways we might have otherwise missed. Mirrors of our own dreams and doubts, wonders and wishes, questions and propositions flash before us in a play where time moves deliberately but at a pace where we have ample time to notice and examine the players in its journey.
|Georgia Engel, Joe Paulik & Stacey Yen|
Jenny and Elias have arrived at the Gettysburg bed and breakfast seemingly to allow Civil War buff Elias to revel in the battlefields and to awaken such interest in Jenny. It soon becomes clear they may actually be here to see if there is a chance to save their three-year relationship after some recent, rocky times. They are greeted into the history-laden house -- once battlefield hospital where amputated parts rose higher than the window – by perpetually cheerful, always gracious, and usually talkative Mertis -- the seventy-something co-owner with her sick and never-seen husband, George. During their three days visit, they will also meet Mertis’ best and older friend, Genevieve, now blind and with a sixth sense about ghosts. Jenny and Elias will confront new realizations about their future together. Stories of the scary and supernatural will blend with recollections of madness and regret. And, much effort will go into wondering what others are thinking when they are actually no longer communicating.
Our eyes will watch all of this non-action unfold while we are also watched as the non-rational bumps time and again into daily reality.
Nothing short of delicious is the performance of well-known Broadway and television star, Georgia Engel, as the B&B host Mertis who gleefully serves chocolate tea, Viennese finger cookies, and perpetually genuine smiles to her guests. Prone to say phrases like “I’ll be dipped” when she is reacting to another’s story, Mertis speaks with a unique voice so full of sweet melody that it is music that could be listened to forever – no matter the current content of its libretto. A self-confirmed Neo-Platonist – a philosophy emanating from the third century -- Mertis is clearly a believer in a “Watcher” from which everything emanates. She gently probes and intently listens to both Jenny and Elias as they expound on their own experiences of feeling watched. Ms. Engel literally twinkles in this role as she moves with much limping effort across the stage and is the one who notes the passing of time by forwarding the hands of a grandmother clock and thus initiating the eclipse or dawning of light from the inn’s windows.
When asked if she feels watched, Jenny immediately responds that she worries about “objects,” particularly a doll like the one named Samantha she is startled to see in Mertis’ parlor – the same doll she hated as a child and haunts her memory to this day. Stacey Yen’s Jenny often speaks in half-sad, half-far-off sighs. At other times, Jenny can be caught looking into space or into directly into a speaker’s face with a mouth open as if about to speak but does not. There is something vulnerable, hidden, nervous, and scared about Ms. Yen’s Jenny. She is an enigma only time’s passing will reveal some of the clues as to why.
|Joe Paulik & Georgia Engel|
The bearded Elias tends to be pensive with knitted brow behind his thick, black glasses but quickly can animate when topics of history, bowls of corn flakes, or an opportunity to create a ghost story enter his world. He has questions and uncertainties about his relationship with Jenny and even asks hypothetically to Mertis, “Have you ever wondered whether to go or stay ... and wanted God to come down and tell you?” Joe Paulik evokes from deep inside his being statuesque silence of contemplation, boy-like excitement of new discovery, and startling outbursts of bent-up frustration and anger – all the time proving his as a talented actor.
|Ann McDonough, Joe Paulik & Georgia Engel|
Rounding out this exceptionally-cast ensemble is Ann McDonough as Genevieve Marduk, often steel-faced behind the dark glasses hiding her unseeing eyes but clearly always aware of the more eerie nuances of the inn’s atmosphere and the bottom-line meanings behind the conversations therein. While she can sense the presence of unknown specters, she elaborates on her own journey to exorcise the very real influence of a past husband’s controlling reign on her crazed life – including a surprise breaking of the fourth wall to do so while engaging directly with us as audience. Guided by Ms. McDonough’s skills, Genevieve’s presence is a fantastic mixture of severe, silly, and spooky – just the perfect combination for this intriguing sojourn through time in the B&B.
Starring also in John is a set design that appears as if Marsha Ginsberg (scenic designer) and Jacquelyn Scott (props master) literally picked up an authentic B&B from the Pennsylvania countryside and magically transferred it to ACT’s Strand stage. Hundreds of details meticulously combine to create this homey set where a tour would be a wonderful, post-play offering. Shelves are sagging with collectables; a magnificent Christmas tree shelters an entire village; pictures, books, lamps are asking for closer observation; and then there are all those dolls. The authenticity is further enhanced by a lighting design (Robert Hand) and a sound design (Brendan Aanes) that assure us that a car has actually driven up in front of the house, that the sun has risen and is now making its path across the blustery winter sky, and that the creaks and moans of the old house occur quite naturally and at will.
And then there are all those important pauses -- those moments of silence that sometimes feel so peaceful they could last forever. That they are then interrupted by conversations that feel unscripted with their uhs, stumbles, and unintended repeats any of us would naturally have is familiar and comforting. Those and all the exquisitely orchestrated daily interactions and actions of host and guests are directed with artistry by Ken Rus Schmoll, who clearly understands Annie Baker and her unique approach as a playwright.
Ken Rus Schmoll also knows how to direct the unseen characters – a sick husband George, a despised ex-husband Jack, and a recent lover named John – all of whom play their own important roles in the lives and times of these four people. Playwright, director, cast, and creative team combine forces to ensure this slice-of-life recounting in American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Annie Baker’s John is mesmerizing and memorable.
Rating: 5 E
John continues through April 23, 2017 at the Strand Theatre of American Conservatory Theatre, 1127 Market Street. Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org or by calling the box office at 415 749-2228.
Photos by Kevin Berne.