Manitoba·Review

Haunting theatre: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's John is moody, weirdly funny and captivating

Annie Baker's John is a carefully crafted play that takes a deep — but also sometimes shockingly funny — look at love, the ghosts of the past, and how the unseen (and unspoken) world affects us.

Royal MTC production does justice to Annie Baker’s complex, carefully crafted play

Annie Baker's John is a moody — but also shockingly funny, given its sometimes oppressive atmosphere — play that examines love, the ghosts of the past, and how the unseen (and unspoken) world affects us. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

Annie Baker has a love for the pause that would make Harold Pinter blush.

Sure, the master British playwright loved pauses so much that the "Pinter pause" is actually a thing.

But Baker — a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright — writes pauses so pregnant in her beautifully haunting play John that they give birth to whole new layers of subtext and meaning, becoming a sort of dialogue of their own.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse's production embraces Baker's exacting 2015 script to profoundly moving effect.

John centres around Elias (David Reale) and Jenny (Rosie Simon), a young couple hoping to light a spark in their troubled relationship with a visit to the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg, Pa. — a place, like our main characters, haunted by a troubled past.

Rosie Simon is Jenny and David Reale plays Elias in John. Baker establishes complex characters, and equally complex relationships between them, as she explores thoughtful themes. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

That brings them to the bed and breakfast run by the eccentric Mertis (Maggie Nagle), who seems to have no other guests but does periodically entertain her even more eccentric friend Genevieve (Terri Cherniack).

What unfolds in Baker's moody play — also shockingly funny, given its sometimes oppressive atmosphere — is an examination of love, absence, the ghosts of the past, and how the unseen (and unspoken) world affects us.

It's a deep play, but one that also has its own peculiar sense of humour. There are big laughs in simple gestures within those now-famous pauses and from lines of dialogue that would be non sequiturs elsewhere — but seem to make a perverse sense in the world Baker crafts. ("The thing about being crazy," Genevieve deadpans, "is that it can also all be true.")

Terri Cherniack as Genevieve and Maggie Nagle as Mertis in John. The past — and the ghosts that linger from it — are palpable forces in Brian Perchaluk's set, evocatively lit by Scott Henderson. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

When it gets serious, though, it gets very serious indeed. Baker establishes complex characters, and equally complex relationships between them, as she explores her thoughtful themes.

She takes her time doing that, mind you — Christopher Brauer's finely honed production clocks in at a comparatively trim two hours and 45 minutes, with two shortened intermissions. (Other productions have pushed closer to the 3½-hour mark.)

It's a play, and a production, that never feels bloated, though, and earns every minute of its running time.

Much of its success relies on constructing a very specific world and a modern gothic tone, which Brauer's production does admirably.

Exquisitely illuminated — or cast in shadow — by Scott Henderson's evocative and precise lighting design, Brian Perchaluk's B&B set is positively exploding with tchotchkes. It has an odd timelessness; with the exception of a gaudily bright jukebox-style CD player, there's nothing in Mertis's home to suggest the 21st century.

The past and the ghosts that linger are palpable forces in Baker's writing, Perchaluk's set and the layered performances from the four-person cast.

Baker doesn't write characters who are always easy to like. The couple at the centre of the drama are often frustratingly flawed, but they're consistently grounded in a relatable realism in superb performances from Simon and Reale. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

In the supporting roles, Cherniack delivers some of the play's biggest laughs as the odd but oddly wise Genevieve, while Nagle comes close to stealing the show with an animated performance as the irrepressibly cheerful Mertis — a woman who never walks anywhere she can scurry.

Baker doesn't write characters who are always easy to like, though — the couple at the centre of the drama are often frustratingly flawed, and yet they're consistently grounded in a relatable realism.

Simon brings an aching humanity to Jenny — a woman so bursting with empathy she's cut holes in the boxes that store her childhood dolls so they aren't stuck in the dark.

The often-neurotic Elias could easily become an unlikable caricature, but again, Reale grounds him with a credible complexity.

Haunted and haunting, John is far from ordinary theatre and not to be missed.

John runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until April 20.

Preview of The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's production of John runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until April 20. 2:49

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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