In Annie Baker’s John, directed by Rebecca Lingafelter, young Jenny and Elias visit a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few days after Thanksgiving, dragging their relationship baggage with them in the hope that something will change.
While everything seems to go wrong between the couple, I can’t think of a bad thing to say about Third Rail Repertory’s production, which runs at the CoHo Theatre through Dec. 22. The production measures up to the script from Baker, whose play The Flick received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014.
Obie Award-winning scenic designer Peter Ksander uses the CoHo’s cozy 95-seat space and thrust stage to place the audience practically onstage with the actors, amid the frumpy-chic and homey Christmas nostalgia of Mertis Graven’s inn. Knickknacks and dolls line the walls, revealing the spirit and emotional state of the proprietor.
The venue suits an intimate play like John. With banks of seats surrounding the stage on three sides, a CoHo Theatre audience becomes more than a group of individuals. They see and influence each other’s reactions, lending an atmosphere of shared storytelling to the performance.
Jennifer Lin and Nick Ferrucci, as Jenny and Elias, project the nervous, backbiting tension of a failed romance waiting to be declared dead. Lin makes her local stage debut as part of Third Rail’s core company, coming from a background in lighting design and 10 years working off-stage in Portland theater. If Lin lacks the acting experience of her fellow cast members, however, it does not show.
Ferrucci’s Elias, like Jenny, ranges from sympathetic to cringe-worthy and takes the audience along sans permission. His credits include more than 20 stage roles and an appearance on television’s Grimm, among others. Ferrucci has the privilege of speaking one of the play’s most surprising lines, which like many parts of John, is funny and disturbing at the same time: “Jenny, if you don’t give me your phone right now I’m going to lick Samantha’s asshole.” It should be noted here that Samantha is a doll.
Core company member Karen Trumbo, who recently appeared in Third Rail’s Annapurna and Noises Off, finds the balance in every compromise that makes up the complicated Mertis. She waits on Jenny and Elias with homey warmth but does not spare them from learning the house’s history as a Civil War hospital. She describes soldiers’ limbs thrown from the windows, piling high enough to darken the very parlor which her guests now enjoy. In a few such dark moments, Mertis goes from charmingly batty to downright creepy, as Trumbo abruptly drops her voice into an eerie deep register sure to induce heebie-jeebies in the audience.
Diane Kondrat gives my favorite performance as blind, 85-year-old Genevieve. Kondrat’s skilled movement and use of voice make her character’s frailty and lack of sight believable. It’s also a pleasure to see a character of Genevieve’s advanced years given full three-dimensional treatment in Baker’s script, rather than the flat stereotype of old age that might be seen in a lesser work. Genevieve gets to have her humor, her weirdness and her dignity all at the same time.
Lingafelter, a core company member with a long list of recent directing credits, including four shows with Third Rail, is also co-artistic director of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble.
Under Lingafelter’s direction, the actors maintain a symmetry which prevents any role from overshadowing the others. This is no easy feat in a play containing so many different themes. According to Lingafelter’s notes, John is about “the universe love birds watchers dolls America bed and breakfasts dieting getting your period quiz shows Cthulhu race sex Christmas spirituality Bach fudge Paris grace and the civil war.” No wonder the play is three hours long.
John’s appeal does not suffer from its length, though, and neither does the audience. The production never seems to strike a wrong note or to diverge or distract from Baker’s story.
Perhaps best of all, John uplifts despite all of its dark subject matter. Although things do not end happily for Jenny and Elias, in the last lines of the play Mertis recalls falling in love:
“I remember moving towards him through Terminal 4 and it was like emerging from the cold and into the sun. Like waking up from the bad dream that was my life before him. And all the confusion and fear and self-hatred that I’d always felt in the presence of other people … I was shedding it like a skin. The spell had ended. And I remember thinking: everything is possible.”