I saw Annie Baker’s John at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia on my 50th birthday. This was perhaps not the best choice as the play, deep in Joseph Campbell territory, trades in the primordial forces lurking just beyond the veneer of civilization. It is The Bacchae kept at bay, a Lovecraft story except not, a connection with a past both unexplained and inexplicable.
The Arden production, overseen by director Matthew Decker, gets the creep just right. This is not as easy as it may first seem because the play also interweaves elements of a yuppie relationship gone sour story coupled with a fish-out-water story. Jenny (Jing Xu) and Elias (Kevin Meehan) check into a Gettysburg B&B run by Mertis (Nancy Boykin). The set-up here is that this dysfunctional city couple – that can neither quite stay together not can quite break up – will receive salt-of-the-wisdom from the good country folk and find some sort of happy medium in their relationship. That by play’s end they are as dysfunctional if not more so as the play began is one example of Baker’s strengths in playing with expectations and genre.
The real pleasure of the play, though, is how it touches on the elemental of earth, humanity, and life itself. The operative word here is “touches”, almost like a cold breeze on the back of the neck. Nothing is explicit or overwhelming, but one always feels that there is something sinister just beyond the forced cheer of the B&B’s décor. The history of the house (a make-shift field hospital during the famous battle), the utilization of birds and dolls (totems) as compelling images, the strange language Mertis and her friend Genevieve speak, and the sense of female power that harkens back to Maenads of legend places the orderly world we perceive on very shaky ground indeed.
MVP Carla Belver portrays the role of Genevieve, originally assayed by Lois Smith at the Signature Theater’s production in New York City. Though Genevieve has the shortest stage time of any of four characters, she is the thematic glue that holds the play together. Belver admirably keeps the audience guessing about Genevieve. Is she touched? By mental illness or the supernatural? We simply do not know. Her monologue concerning her descent into madness and the power of her husband John over here captivates. That a John also crops up in Jenny’s life just deepens the mystery. Not who is John but what? That this question – like so many in the play – is left unanswered may be initially frustrating, but should ultimately be satisfied as the play’s very structure becomes a part of the cosmic uncertainty it is dramatizing.
Baker’s work is very challenging requiring precision and complex engagement from cast and director alike. I was heartened to see that her play survives and thrives beyond its initial production.