Kevin Meehan (left) and Jing Xu
(right) Photo by Mark Garvin.
by David Schultz
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
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.
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.
Jing Xu in Arden Theatre Company's production
ofJohn. Photos by
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
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.
Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia PA
through February 26th