At the beginning of Ordinary People, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) head to an evening at the theater. The screenplay describes it as “a very conventional play. The set represents an average American kitchen.” But this very conventional play stirs something up in Calvin’s spirit. Driving home, he loses himself in a reverie as he slowly realizes that his marriage is in trouble.
Annie Baker’s play John lives in that startling moment of transmogrification, when something inexplicable gets under your skin and changes you. John also examines another unhappy couple inside of a conventional American setting, a bed-and-breakfast. Georgia Engel stars as Mertis, an eccentric innkeeper with hidden depths. You might remember Engel as Georgette from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a role in which she communicated innocence and joy without acknowledging anyone else’s cynicism. In John, she is perfectly cast. Georgette was often condescended to by the other characters, but her naiveté didn’t make her stupid. That same affect works to Engel’s advantage here. She employs that familiar wide-eyed openness, that sense of delight in simply being alive, but Mertis is nobody’s fool.
Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen) arrive in at Mertis’ Gettysburg B&B late at night. Elias is a Civil War history buff who can’t wait to tour the famous battlegrounds. Jenny accompanies him out of duty. When she opts out of a guided cemetery tour, it becomes startlingly clear that this isn’t the only enthusiasm she doesn’t share with Elias. An obvious playwright would capitalize on the parallels between their domestic civil war and the one that took place in Gettysburg. But Baker is an entirely allusive writer who spells absolutely nothing out. John retains a palpable sense of mystery because of the information withheld and, conversely, with the objects that are on display.
Marsha Ginsberg’s set design is a fantasia of Victorian-era Americana, with dolls, doilies, and tchotchkes lining the walls and shelves. The lamps, wallpaper, and furniture are all vintage, weighed down with invisible ectoplasm. Before anyone speaks a word, the set transports the audience with its worn out and faded specificity. Robert Hand expertly designed the lighting and it in turn becomes a recurring, if silent, character. Rarely do the details of the stage design complement the story and the actors to such a harmonious extent. A production like this reminded me of how inimitable a theatrical experience can be.
The outline of John — a relationship in trouble, an odd innkeeper, a haunted house — doesn’t sound like it would add up to more than its elementary parts. By creating the character of Genevieve (Ann McDonough), Mertis’ blind best friend, however, Baker embraces something untamed and unnameable. Genevieve’s nephew drops her off at the B&B for tea and cookies, Viennese fingers in particular. Instead of making small talk with the new guests, Genevieve recounts tales of going mad, including vivid imagery of scorpions in her mind and an ex-husband who defeats the body of God. Baker also provides Genevieve with a monologue at the start of the second intermission (John is a three-hour play but doesn’t feel like it).
Ann McDonough delivered it as if she were channeling a cross between an ancient mystic and Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls, enraged by human folly. More than anything that happened on stage during the play’s present tense, it’s Genevieve’s character who convinces us that our own minds haunt us, our memories and emotions, not inanimate objects or houses.
Much of John takes place wordlessly in the middle of the night. Baker unleashes a nightmare into that dreamless place as a warning or a signal fire for her characters. She captures the insomniac’s moment of dawning: The ache of love is irretrievable, gone.
John, through April 23, at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org