American playwright Annie Baker won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for The Flick (seen at Red Stitch) when she was 33. Her writing’s won Off-Broadway Obie awards and rightly declares a new Baker as a show to see. The MTC have the Australian premier of her 2015 play, John, and director Sarah Goodes guides a must-see production that revels in the ambiguity, mystery and too-close-for-comfort humour in the writing.
Jenny (Ursula Mills) and Elias (Johnny Carr) are as much trying to stay together as they are trying to break up when they weekend at a B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Mertis (Helen Morse), who wears a fanny pack and a doggy apron when she’s working. The tourist area offers Civil War ghost tours, but the real unease come from the gaze of personal ghosts and gods, collectable American Dolls, and, sometimes, Mertis’s blind friend Genevieve (Melita Jursisc), who’s happy to explain that she’s no longer clinically insane.
The heart of Annie Baker’s writing is in the subtext: the white space on the page that creates the silences on the stage, the time between scenes, how characters listen and reacts, and the surprises in the design and sound.
Designers Elizabeth Gadsby (set and costume) and Richard Vabre (lighting) make the homely and welcoming B&B feel creepy. At a glance, it looks super naturalistic – in a world where floral carpet, chintz and kitch figurines are expected – but the detail reveals an out-of-time oddness that hints of the supernatural, or an ageing house with quirks. There are too many lights, the grandfather clock ticks but doesn’t measure time without help, the flying ducks on the wall light up, the radio is a mini juke box that plays Bach and Vivaldi, and the pianola can’t be trusted. The atmosphere is perfected with Russell Goldsmith’s sound design of ticking, rustling and music that’s as implied as it is heard
Morse and Jurisic perform like Metris and Genevieve – oh, Genevieve – were written for them. With timing and pacing that define their years of experience and an ability to create character from the centre of their beings, they are as heartbreaking as they are hilarious. Mills and Carr use the silences to show more than “what yelling looks like”, and let Jenny and Elias be so unlikeable that the moments when they show their true feelings change everything. All four hold onto the their secrets and let the audience keep guessing, filling in the unsaid through the two intervals, and talking about their own Johns late into the night.
John isn’t theatre that explains itself and the temperamental room that Metris talks about might be the one you’re sitting in. Baker’s writing is as complex as life but she never wants her audience to forget that they are in a theatre. Goode’s production lets this conceit pay off again and again, and, as the stories unravel and tangle, we’re reminded how theatre can get inside our minds and stay with us like ghosts.