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If you’ve ever stepped foot in a mid-Atlantic Victorian B&B, replete with nostalgic décor and painfully cheerful bric-a-brac, you will know your tribe. Either you will revel in the tchotchkes and frills or you will be caught in a metaphorical shudder and the fascinating question of who lives like this? Capturing the mood with utter perfection is Signature’s production of Annie Baker’s John (★★★★), a funny, haunting, insightful study of intersecting lives.
There isn’t praise enough for Paige Hathaway’s stunning set — an evocation that is by turns gloomy, homey, creepy and comical. Not a detail nor an opportunity has been missed in suggesting these slightly eccentric, slightly mysterious accommodations and all that they connote. Complementing the mood perfectly are the subtle lighting choices of Andrew Cissna, who delivers such wonders as the priceless melancholy of a sleeping house and — in one tiny, lace-curtained window — the funereal majesty of changing winter skies. The moods are extraordinary and, even when playful, beautifully restrained.
If the atmosphere is uncanny, bringing it all to life is a phenomenal Nancy Robinette as Mertis, the proprietress. This is no easy role, seeing as Baker gives this woman a distinct affect and artifice. She is the keeper of the house, but she is also keeper of its — and her own — secrets. But if she is not altogether forthcoming, she is also expressive of a quietly open spirit, one engaged in her own experience but deeply curious of others. In lesser hands it might feel pretentious or perhaps even camp, but with Robinette’s searingly astute sensibility, this is a living, breathing, subtly troubled, questing soul. Her ways are gentle, her sensitivities and her deep attachment to the house are enduringly interesting.
To her credit, even as Baker weaves her strange and melancholy web around Mertis, she proves more than willing to throw a thoroughly unexpected cat amongst the pigeons. Arriving in millennial splendor are Jenny and Elias, road-tripping Brooklynites stopping at the B&B to take in a bit of Civil War history. A pair of often-comical snowflakes, they are the (all-too-familiar) products of the kind of Boomer parents who rear young adults blissfully relieved of the burden of basic manners and gifted in the certainty that the world is here to serve. Still, they are not without their charms. Although Jenny may often be childlike, at times it translates to an affecting vulnerability and openness. And while Elias, forged in eclectic fires, may default to a kind of grumpy internalizing, his questions and challenges to Jenny are ultimately important and suggest the best of a new kind of emotional egalitarianism.
And his questions and challenges are soon on display, for it’s clear that there is trouble in hipster Paradise. As Mertis plies her trade, offering breakfast and her odd-duck brand of hospitality, the young relationship reveals itself to be wobbling dangerously on its axis. As their mini-break unfolds and Jenny and Elias get ever closer to their truth, Mertis begins to offer something they easily overlook but which we see with gentle clarity: the quiet, spiritual embrace of care and empathy. If director Joe Calarco masterfully builds and creates the space for this, Robinette’s ability to deliver such a wordless something is pure magic.
Indeed, one of the production’s most potent and original moments comes when Elias has gone sightseeing, leaving Jenny to struggle with period cramps. Mertis and her aged friend Genevieve treat Jenny to a bottle of wine, a bit of chat, and their “active” listening as Jenny lets the alcohol do the talking. The two older women may have no idea where Jenny’s head is at, but it is silently clear that they understand a young and searching soul (no matter how entitled) and the woeful aches of early womanhood.
If Robinette does, without doubt, carry the play, the other strong player here is certainly Jonathan Feuer as Elias. The character is a pleasingly realistic jumble of ingredients and not altogether likable, but then again, maybe he is under the circumstances. Feuer captures the complexity with great clarity but also — crucially — with nuance, authenticity, and some excellent comic timing. (It is interesting to note from the program that Feuer does a fair bit of children’s theater — if he is bringing this kind of exceptional color and understatement to kids, there’s a future for theater after all.)
A harder question is Jenny. The challenge here is the playwright’s choice to give Jenny the kind of attributes that argue with any kind of integrity. Mooning around in her girly, oversized sweater, she obsesses over a childhood doll and wants to be told fanciful stories. Is this a comment on today’s young women? Or is it irony-free? Baker’s intention never outs and, without more of an interpretation, it must stand as earnest. As such, Anna Moon does a great job bringing believable personality to Jenny, but she never quite convinces when it comes to the doll and her pivotal outburst at Elias doesn’t ring true.
As Genevieve, IIona Dulaski brings a tremendous theatrical presence and good comic timing, but there is a tad too much contrast with Robinette’s realism. Any New Englander who has had a crazy aunt in a beehive will know where this character might have gone. Still, Dulaski contributes strongly to the atmosphere of silent contemplation of the youngsters and she certainly, joyfully commands a space.
All cogitations aside, John is two nights in a B&B you won’t soon forget.
To April 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA. Tickets are $40 to $94. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org for more information.
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