Something quite different is going on at the ArtsWest Playhouse this spring. The award-winning playwright Annie Baker’s play John is having its Seattle premiere here and it’s a very strange trip indeed. The Playhouse’s welcoming staff reminds incoming audiences that the show runs three hours with two intermissions. When so many new works seem intent on compacting their production into one fast paced act, Baker wants the time to provide the needed space for her four fascinating characters and us to explore the otherworldly bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the eerie and unsettling setting for her play. Baker’s plot unfolding like a troubling dream performed by a cast that director Erin Murray describes as “out of this world talented” make for a very memorable night of theater.
The set up for this play could not be more conventional. A young couple, Elias (Sean Lally) and Jenny (Mi Kang) arrive at a bed and breakfast run by a charming albeit somewhat daffy Mertis (Marianne Owen). They are returning from visiting Jenny’s family in Ohio, and want to stop to explore Gettysburg (or at least Elias wants to) before they return to New York. Mertis’ friend Genevieve (Suzy Hunt) will arrive for visits in the latter two acts. Despite these conventional trappings, it doesn’t take long for us to realize we’re in a very different dramatic landscape. Showing the couple their room, Mertis takes her two guests up to the second floor and thus offstage for a lengthy dialogue, leaving the audience all alone in her home. This gives us time to take in an old-time player piano, a glowing CD player churning out Bach, a Christmas tree that will prove to have a mind of its own about when to turn on its lights, the American Doll Samantha hanging from the wall and enough tchotchkes to fill up three or four traditional sets. Scenic designer Burton K. Yuen has successfully built a set that nearly serves as another character in the play. We later learn that the house served as a hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. The bloody conflict left severed limbs piling high up against the house’s windows. The home has literally been surrounded by the deceased. The play’s action will continually blur the lines between life and death, often seeming to take place in an ethereal middle ground.
Soon Mertis and we overhear the young couple in a heated argument. Questions surrounding Elias and Jenny’s relationship will be another focus of John. Issues of trust and infidelity engender dangerous sparks around the two. Baker has a remarkable gift of creating life-like conversations complete with long moments of natural silences, leaving enough space for the audience to enter into the characters’ lives. She constructs casual chitchat that can suddenly explode into a startling vitriol, shocking both the characters and us. An early scene features Jenny unhappy with Elias’ loud chewing at breakfast. The argument will quickly leap into accusations of antisemitism. Mi Kang and Lally easily manage the dramatic twists and turns of their rocky relationship portrayed through the three acts.
Mi Kang’s Jenny is a girl very much of her time. She is never far from her cell phone, continually texting. She’s very bright and lonely. Sharing an evening with Mertis and Genevieve, Jenny describes a transformative experience she had lying under a star filled sky in Big Sur. She explains how she is now “less alone in my aloneness.” All four of Baker’s characters confront loneliness, each devising their own methods to deal with the pain.
Marianne Owen does a stellar job portraying the mysterious Mertis. Quite comfortable with Baker’s language, Owen’s character seems to somehow float a bit above her kooky home and its guests. As the play progresses, we begin to appreciate the hidden strength and powers of this unassuming hostess. She writes brilliant journal entries in perhaps archaic languages and seems to be a mind reader. She is attuned to possible unseen forces in our lives, appreciating the “deep calling unto deep.” She literally controls time when she dramatically adjusts and readjusts the home’s grandfather clock. In the moving final scene she creates special lights and music to ease the anguish of her companions.
Baker’s Genevieve must be one of the juiciest roles for women written this decade. Genevieve is blinded and divorced. She has had severe bouts of madness and has been haunted by her ex-husband John. (A different John will come into play later in the show.) But if she’s anything, she is a survivor, and Suzy Hunt brings a thrilling energy to the part that nearly knocked me out of my seat. Her seemingly impromptu lecture, delivered directly to the audience at the end of Act II is worth the price of admission alone.
John features a delightful give and take between detailed realism and the eerie supernatural. The script is filled with mundane earthly trivia, referencing pre-packaged eggs, an old Bob Dylan tune, HCG diet plans, game shows, birds and insects. It is also replete with possible ghosts, hauntings, unexplained sounds and the feeling we can somehow be “watched over.” Its characters must somehow manage their lives amidst the constant flow of these baffling juxtapositions. Baker concludes her work with a simple two-word question, inviting all of us to consider possible answers for a good long while after leaving these characters behind in the theater.
John runs through April 7 at the ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, in West Seattle at 4711 California Ave SW. Tickets are available online at www.artswest.org/theatre/but-ticket/ by phone at 206-938-0339 and at the box office Thursday through Sunday 2p.m.-7:30 p.m.