REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★.5
Following its critically-acclaimed productions of Gloria and Trevor, Outhouse Theatre Company is presenting John, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Annie Baker, at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre.
Set in the present day in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, John is the story of a young couple whose relationship is in crisis. Elias (James Bell) and Jenny (Shuang Hu) are returning home to New York after visiting her parents in Ohio for Thanksgiving. They’re stopping in Gettysburg because of Elias’s childhood obsession with the American Civil War.
Elias’s and Jenny’s short stay in Gettysburg is at a bed and breakfast run by 72-year-old Mertis (Belinda Giblin) – or ‘Kitty’ to her friends. The main rooms of her B&B are full of knick-knacks, like miniature houses and a sizeable collection of dolls. There’s a pianola and mini jukebox in the lounge and a Paris-themed dining area.
From the outset, there’s a lot that seems off. A specific room the couple booked for their stay is now mysteriously unavailable (and Mertis can’t quite explain what the problem is), while Jenny recognises one of the dolls from her own childhood collection and is convinced the doll is staring at her, angrily. Quickly, Baker’s text provokes questions as to whether the old home is haunted and whether its owner is concealing her own knowledge of supernatural goings on.
What’s interesting about John, however, is that despite initial expectations, it’s actually focused on the everyday realities of here and now. We learn that the relationship between Elias and Jenny has been strained by a secret relationship she’s recently had with a man named John (about whom we are given no further details). While it seems Elias and Jenny have resolved to continue with their own relationship, in spite of Jenny’s infidelity, it is also apparent that, simmering just beneath the surface, is enormous tension. During their first breakfast at the B&B, Elias notices Jenny’s irritation at the noise he’s making while eating his cereal. It leads to an uncomfortable exchange that makes it obvious there is much more for the couple to confront with respect to their relationship, if it’s to stand a chance of survival.
In John’s second act, Mertis’s good friend, Genevieve (Maggie Blinco), visits the B&B. She’s a blind woman in her eighties who’s convinced her late husband sent her insane by invading her body with his spirit. In stark contrast to what we are initially led to believe, we begin to see Genevieve as a strong, intelligent woman with acumen. There are valuable lessons to be taken from her improbable tales.
The play clocks in at 195 minutes (including two intervals) and despite that running time, it’s far from jam-packed with action. Instead, Baker has crafted a more naturalistic piece of theatre that allows the events here to unfold in their own good time. This often means long pauses and extended scenes in the one time and place, and provides real tension as we are kept guessing as to the direction the narrative will ultimately take.
Make no mistake, John won’t be a universally adored night of theatre, but it is utterly original and director Craig Baldwin has realised Baker’s text in an excellent production. The play’s measured pace prompts us to ask many of our own questions about the characters and the out-of-sight machinations from the moment the curtain opens to uncover Jeremy Allen’s exceptionally detailed and ornate set, depicting the main rooms of the B&B. Veronique Benett contributes what is arguably one of the best lighting designs we’ve seen on Sydney stages this year, realistically taking us through various moments of the day and night and assisting in evoking a terrific sense of the icy winter in Gettysburg. Music also plays a vital role in proceedings and Melanie Herbert’s work succeeds in enhancing the piece’s overall disconcerting and off-kiler tone.
When it comes to the four-piece cast, it’s difficult to imagine a group more suited to these roles than that assembled here. Giblin is outstanding as the temperate, thoughtful and sympathetic host, and doesn’t miss a beat despite her character’s rather intricate stage directions. Blinco, meanwhile, brings the laughs with her bang-on portrayal of the wonderfully unconventional Genevieve. Both women are tremendous assets to Baldwin’s production.
Bell and Hu are impressive as the fractured couple. Bell fittingly portrays Elias as downhearted, distrustful and self-doubting. Making her stage debut, Hu is innately engaging from the beginning, aptly revealing Jenny’s emotional sensitivity as the play progresses (and also her aptitude for deception). Not only do Bell and Hu convince as individual characters but also make us believe in their characters’ fissured relationship.
At the end of the night, there may not be any substantial takeaways from John. Instead, interesting questions are raised about relationships, and the distinct concepts of being alone and loneliness, but it can nonetheless offer a remarkable theatrical experience to those willing to embrace its idiosyncrasies. It is highly recommended to those who find themselves in this category.
Photo credit: Clare Hawley