Review: ‘John’ at Arden Theatre Company

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker is unsurpassed in her modern-day observations on the human condition and how we respond to it: the afflictions that impact us; the troubled relationships that plague us; the ghosts that haunt us; the half-heard conversations and pregnant silences that fill our days and speak volumes; and the magic of seeing the beauty of life and enjoying it to the fullest, in spite of its challenges. Director Matthew Decker, who helmed an affecting production of Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Theatre Horizon in 2014, captures the depth and complexity of Baker’s insightful vision with humor and sensitivity in Arden Theatre Company’s top-notch Philadelphia premiere of John.

Carla Belver and Nancy Boykin. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Carla Belver and Nancy Boykin. Photo by Mark Garvin.

When Elias Schreiber-Hoffman and Jenny Chung, a troubled young couple on the verge of a breakup, make a weekend stop to visit the Civil War sites of Gettysburg, they encounter more than they expected at a bed and breakfast filled to capacity with Christmas lights and decorations, art and antiques, dolls and collectibles. Run by the irrepressible Mertis Katherine “Kitty” Graven, who cheerfully cares for her unseen husband, her blind friend Genevieve Marduk, and her young guests, the historic inn and its proprietor hold arcane surprises that inspire self-examination and reflection, as Baker and her characters explore the fundamental question of belief on both a physical and a metaphysical level (including a nod to the life and work of fiction-writer H.P. Lovecraft).

Decker and his superb cast, with the talented Emilie Krause serving as Assistant Director, embrace Baker’s deliberate pacing, pauses, and extended passages of music (at a running time of over two-and-a-half hours, with two intermissions, not a moment in the captivating show is wasted) and masterfully portray her contrast between youthful uncertainty and the enlightenment that comes with experience and age. Carla Belver is hilariously outspoken as the crotchety Genevieve, completely forthright about her backstory of a bad marriage to the eponymous John; the mental instability it provoked, leaving her with “Just me and my thoughts, and sometimes no thoughts at all” (hence the play’s provocatively realistic segments of silence); the onset of her blindness that brought her true vision; and the universality of her experiences (her prescient comment that “Everyone knows someone named John” proves all too true).

Kevin Meehan and Jing Xu. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Kevin Meehan and Jing Xu. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Nancy Boykin thoroughly embodies the charming and good-natured Kitty, from the way she walks to the way she talks – seemingly distracted and ditzy, but fully aware and in control as the keeper of the inn, its contents, and its denizens, while slyly advancing the hands on a grandfather clock and drawing the stage curtains open and closed. It’s a delight to see two such accomplished actresses together onstage, when so many productions lack roles for mature women. Their performances are a revelation, and should send out a call to theater companies everywhere to follow the lead of John.

That’s not to say that Kevin Meehan and Jing Xu, in her Arden debut, don’t also impress with their skillful and engaging characterizations of the combatant young lovers Elias and Jenny. He is a study in anger, mistrust, indecision, and separation anxiety; she displays a laughably disconcerting penchant for revealing personal stories about herself and her boyfriend, and for making excuses while concealing relevant information. Is she the passive-aggressive bigot and liar that Elias accuses her of being, or is he just unsure of his love for her and looking for a reason to move on? And, more importantly, is there, as she believes, a “Watcher” who looks out for us, embraces us when we’re alone, and ultimately holds us accountable for our bad behavior?

A lavishly layered set design by Tim Mackabee captures the richness of the past, brimming with the objects, history, and memories that stay with us and accumulate over time, while underscoring the aural/visual contrast between the play’s long empty silences and its elaborately filled space (kudos to Prop Master Christopher Haig). Lighting by Maria Shaplin and sound by Michael Kiley are timed to perfection to evoke the mysterious mood and enigmatic occurrences in the story, and costumes by Rebecca Kanach are believable and current, while subtly reinforcing the demeanors of the characters (Kitty dons a festive red holiday sweater; Jenny is cold and listless, wrapped in a quilt).

There is all of that, and so much more, in Annie Baker’s profound script and Arden’s superlative production of John.

John is brilliant (a word we don’t often use) must-see theater that is well worth your time, thought, and attention. Don’t miss it.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 40 minutes, with two 15-minute intermissions.

John plays through Sunday, February 26, 2017, at Arden Theatre Company, Arcadia Stage – 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.

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