Gaze long enough at Eric Beeck’s detailed set of a Victorian era house and you’ll swear it’s staring back at you. It’s an odd feeling, but it’s one that the slow, unfolding pace of the creepily atmospheric drama John by Annie Baker requires if the play is to work.
In Stray Cat Theatre’s 2016-17 season opener at its new Tempe Center for the Arts home in Tempe running now until October 1, an old home once used as an emergency hospital for union soldiers at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is now a somewhat spooky looking Bed & Breakfast. It’s not exactly the interior of the Adams Family, it’s not meant to be quite that obvious, but it’s the overall look and feel of the place that lends itself to something potentially creepy. The location seems fitting, too. With its ghostly memories of fallen civil war soldiers brutally massacred in nearby battlefields, the idea that something unseen may be hanging around and observing us is always there.
Maybe it’s all of those dolls lining the stairs – nothing is more creepy than a Victorian doll in lacey period clothing always staring blankly ahead – or maybe it’s all of those miniatures or small, model houses with little people decorating the shelves. The living room pianola that suddenly bursts into a rinky-dink version of Me and My Shadow on its own accord doesn’t help. And that portrait of some unsmiling face looking down upon everyone can’t do anything other than creep you out. Even the Christmas tree becomes an issue. What looks cheerfully colorful suddenly dulls into a ghoulish presence in the corner when the power goes, though with the foreboding sense of dread established from the beginning, you question whether it was just an interior connection problem or maybe it was something else that turned off the lights. Whatever it was, the whole thing feels unsettling.
It’s the last week of November. Thanksgiving has passed and the Christmas season has begun. A young couple, Elias (Will Hightower) and his girlfriend, Jenny (Michelle Chin) are on their way back to New York, but not before a quick detour, spending a couple of days sight-seeing the historic grounds of Gettysburg. There’s a sweet, elderly lady with a girly voice, Mertis (Shari Watts) who runs the B&B and takes the couple up to the Chamberlain Room. The visitors booked the Jackson Room but Mertis is intent on having them in the Chamberlain. “The Jackson Room can be a little temperamental,” Mertis tells them. She never explains what that means, but whatever it is, it all adds to the eeriness. Plus, there are no other guests in the house.
Then there’s Mertis’ friend who drops by from time to time. In the way that Mertis is friendly and willing to make you as comfortable as possible, the blind, elderly Genevieve (Debra Lyman) is vaguely sinister and can make you considerably uncomfortable without really trying. She doesn’t necessarily do anything physically threatening, it’s just her manner and her presence. Genevieve declares the house to be haunted and talks in terms of once being certifiably mad. She’s not helping, either. “If I’m not asleep by nine-thirty,” she states, “I fall into a deep despair.”
The success of the piece is down to Stray Cat’s production team and the four person cast who each convincingly inhabit their roles; five, if you count the character created by the atmospheric set. Director Ron May develops an unusual but effectively spooky atmosphere; it’s like the setup to a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe where a relationship explored may potentially fall apart due more to dark, unseen forces than personality conflicts. Is there something supernatural going on or are the characters simply victims of a growing self-doubt brought on by unnerving surroundings? That may be the point, or one of them, but you’re never quite sure.
When Jenny asks that Elias tell her a scary story, he explains, “I can only do build-up to scary, not scary itself,” and for many, that may be the issue with the play. The set, the setting and the overall style creates a build towards something interesting, but what that something is tends to elude. The notion that someone or something is always watching is a continuing theme throughout. When Mertis asks the young couple if they’ve ever felt “A larger presence watching you from somewhere,” you may think, yes, there really is a larger presence and it’s us, the audience, observing every little movement, no matter how trivial or seemingly inconsequential, yet not so much as flies-on-the-wall but as uninvited eavesdroppers, always there, lingering in the main lobby and seeing everything, including those lengthy moments when the room is empty.
Like playwright Baker’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama The Flick performed at Stray Cat in 2013, John is a slow, deliberate, unfolding burn told in three long acts with two intermissions. It runs almost three hours and clearly audiences will be divided. There are moments when the stage is empty while characters converse in an upstairs room – we can hear them moving around but it’s muffled – or when Mertis exits through the front door to greet an arriving vehicle and we’re left alone for a surprisingly lengthy period wondering what happens next. When characters talk, the conversation often begins with trivialities then slowly develops into something more confrontational. And when Mertis walks in tiny steps from one side of the house to the other, either pushing a tea tray or lighting candles, it’s all done slowly, deliberately leaving us to observe every little step. Stray Cat’s production rewards but Baker’s script, its pacing and its overall ambiguous nature will test audience patience more than it did three years ago with the more engaging The Flick.
Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose
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