Haunting theatre: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's John is moody, weirdly funny and captivating
Royal MTC production does justice to Annie Baker’s complex, carefully crafted play
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.
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.")
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.
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.