April 24, 2019

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Drama an exploration of relationships

Fine performances power play set in historic Gettysburg

While it has discreet touches of haunting supernatural mystery, Annie Baker’s drama John will doubtless scare off a few potential audience members due to its nearly three-hour length (including not one, but two intermissions).

Factor in that this is not a thrill-a-minute kind of piece. It proceeds at a leisurely pace, with quiet stretches that exceed the parameters of the Pinter pause.

Sometimes actors leave the stage altogether and take their dialogue elsewhere, leaving you to take in a painstakingly cluttered set depicting a bed-and-breakfast in historic Gettysburg, Pa. (Set designer Brian Perchaluk’s set is a marvellous work of intricately detailed kitsch; imagine a Hallmark gift store in the throes of delirium tremens.)

But, to paraphrase Roger Ebert: no good play is too long and no bad play is too short. John is a good play, a sharply observed examination of relationships, fragile and otherwise, with spiritual elements pinging resonantly around its edges.

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While it has discreet touches of haunting supernatural mystery, Annie Baker’s drama John will doubtless scare off a few potential audience members due to its nearly three-hour length (including not one, but two intermissions).

Factor in that this is not a thrill-a-minute kind of piece. It proceeds at a leisurely pace, with quiet stretches that exceed the parameters of the Pinter pause.

Sometimes actors leave the stage altogether and take their dialogue elsewhere, leaving you to take in a painstakingly cluttered set depicting a bed-and-breakfast in historic Gettysburg, Pa. (Set designer Brian Perchaluk’s set is a marvellous work of intricately detailed kitsch; imagine a Hallmark gift store in the throes of delirium tremens.)

But, to paraphrase Roger Ebert: no good play is too long and no bad play is too short. John is a good play, a sharply observed examination of relationships, fragile and otherwise, with spiritual elements pinging resonantly around its edges.

Into this tchotchke-laden B&B comes couple Jenny (Rosie Simon) and her longtime boyfriend Elias (David Reale), returning home to New York after visiting her parents in Ohio. Elias, a drummer/computer programmer by profession, is also a would-be historian, especially fascinated by the U.S. Civil War. He has brought Rosie, a professional question-writer for a game show, for a little holiday break in the home of Mertis ("Call me Kitty"), the owner of this aggressively charming house that once witnessed mind-blowing horrors when it had been pressed into service as a hospital in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Mertis (Maggie Nagle) is a conscientious hostess and she shows it by accommodating her troubled guests, even as they demonstrate that their relationship is in the middle of a feverish bad patch. Elias is weaning himself off depression meds. Jenny is suffering tortuous menstrual cramps and Mertis supplies curative chocolate-red velvet tea and also, later, wine, allowing Elias freedom to do on a midnight "ghost tour" of the battleground.

Revelations about the specific problems facing Elias and Jenny come courtesy of a visit by Mertis’s blind best friend Genevieve (Terri Cherniack), who enjoys describing her battle with madness instigated by an ex-lover named John, whose voice dominated Genevieve’s every thought during her long institutionalization.

Jenny’s ears prick up at the name. She too has a John in her life, she says.

"Everyone knows a ‘John,’" Genevieve deadpans, one of many of the play’s universal truths.

It is Genevieve alone who claims to hear rustlings and voices in the house, but all the characters are touched by otherworldly things: Mertis, when she hears Jenny has slept in a different room, acknowledges that some rooms are safer than others when it comes to inexplicable phenomena. And Jenny, upon seeing a familiar doll, describes a childhood of torment, recalling her relationship with a doll she felt judged her.

Director Christopher Brauer grounds some of the play’s more fantastic elements with grounded, naturalistic performances by the cast. Nagle is the show’s anchor, a hard-working hostess who even takes it upon herself to open and close the curtain before and after each act.

Mertis has the potential to be played as a lovable loon, but Nagle affords her dignity and elder gravitas. Reale, last seen at the Royal MTC Warehouse in My Name Is Asher Lev, finds some empathy for a character who might easily be judged on his neurosis — hard-earned as it turns out. Simon, likewise, creates an admirably balanced performance: neither victim nor villain.

As the blind mystic Genevieve, Cherniack may have here one of her best roles, and she takes it on with great comic aplomb. Genevieve is the play’s one character that is allowed to break through the play’s restrained character dynamics. Cherniack takes that liberty and runs with it... joyously.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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