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Kevin Meehan (left) and Jing Xu (right)                             Photo by Mark Garvin. 

                                                           by David Schultz

The Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia has mounted a rapturous production of Annie Baker’s mysterious work. The entire cast is in perfect sync with this investigation into the magical universe that Ms. Baker has created. Theatergoers are enveloped in a spiritual, yet gently disturbing world as they enter the theater. The seamless juxtaposition of the natural world and the occult are finely wrought. The plot at first glance seems straightforward in the way the tale gently unfolds…but there is much more to this tale than meets the eye.

A young couple from Brooklyn Elias (Kevin Meehan) and Jenny (Jing Xu) are at a crossroad in their relationship. They have come to stay at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to check out the various famous sites…Elias is a Civil War buff with an avid love of American history. The added bonus of finding out that the B&B is built on the site of a former Civil War hospital is icing on the cake for Elias. Jenny on the other hand is along for the ride, mildly intrigued by her boyfriend’s obsession, but not really feeling the vibe. These two are at complete odds with each other, keeping up appearances and delicately dancing around much deep-seated wounds, the eggshell emotions will eventually crack as the play progresses.

The proprietress of this B&B is a very odd, cheerful woman, who seems plain ditsy at first glance. Mertis Katherine Graven (Nancy Boykin) flits all over the place proudly showing off all her collectable’s and tchotchkes, piano player, a gargantuan assortment of stuffed dolls strewn all over the house, comingled with a garish assortment of Christmas decorations. Set designer Tim Mackabee renders all these elements into a fascinating demented set.

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Jing Xu in Arden Theatre Company's production ofJohn. Photos by Mark Garvin. 

The eye cannot take it all in, so much is on display, including an eerie little girl’s doll, sitting on top of the piano. Jenny herself had owned the same doll in her youth, American Girl Doll Samantha now residing in her parent’s basement, hidden from view. The mysterious doll always haunted her, and now it glowers at her from a perch at the B&B. It was widely sold, so it is obviously not her own doll, but she is very disturbed seeing it again. So much of the inanimate objects on display have a supernatural vibration. Nothing is exaggerated or underlined in bold relief, but much of the homestead seems truly energized by some unknown force. Much credit is due to lighting designer (Maria Shaplin) for creating perfectly sculpted gradations of light and darkness. Finding the ephemeral shades of lighting help this production immeasurably.


(Left to Right) Carla Belver, Kevin Meehan and Nancy Boykin

A dear friend of Mertis makes a few appearances into this homestead. Elderly, blind, with more than a touch of madness, Genevieve Marduk (Carla Belver) tantalizes her hostess with her macabre tales, and Jenny finds her fascinating. The mere outlining of plot seems almost superfluous; the real meat of the tale is what lies beneath the surface. Long silent scenes unfold throughout the three-act play. Everything moves slowly, with an almost clockwork precision. Furtive glances, half spoken words uttered with a whisper combine with occasional long aria-like digressions on mystical topics. It sounds complex and dense…. and it is in a way, but for the active sensitive theatergoer this works splendidly. There are allusions to unseen forces, and a connection with the fantastic world of H.P. Lovecraft. (A short segment of one of his stories are quoted in the play to eerie effect), writer Shirley Jackson is given a wink and a nod to the savvy observer…the mention of the never to enter, sealed like a tomb Jackson room upstairs is perhaps a nod to her ultimate ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House. There are enumerable points of entry into this spiritual treatise on the human condition, as well as subtle humor imbedded in the piece, dry and crisp. The key to the enjoyment of the play is finding all the hidden elements that Annie Baker has so craftily hidden inside the house and the play itself. The work moves toward a penultimate moment that makes one laugh, then gasp with a sense of sadness and regret. The parallel tracks of emotion make this new play shimmer in unexpected ways.            


Playing at

The Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia PA

Arcadia Stage

(215) 922-1122


Playing through February 26th