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A ghost world in Gettysburg: 'John' at Arden Theatre

"Everyone knows someone named John." This perfectly true and pedestrian remark echoes with eerie and tantalizing resonance in Annie Baker's most recent play, John, currently in previews at the Arden Theatre and opening on Wednesday.

You may have seen others of Baker's remarkable and uncategorizable works: Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, Body Awareness, The Flick (for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014), and her ravishing adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Her newest play, The Antipodes, will open at the Signature Theatre in New York in the spring. Fair warning: Not only are her plays very long (more than three hours) and filled with long silences, but they are so deeply moving and fascinating that you'll still be longing for more at the end. To my amazement (and embarrassment), at the end of the New York production of John, I actually said — out loud — "Oh, no!"

John is a ghost story filled with unfinished ghost stories. It takes place in a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, a place filled with battlefield ghosts and expectable touristy nighttime ghost walks. A young couple -- Elias (Kevin Meehan), a Civil War buff, and Jenny (Jing Xu) -- arrive, and it's obvious their relationship is rocky. And although both are neurotic, with plenty of "issues," the real stars of the show are two strange older women who are best friends: Mertis (Nancy Boykin), who runs the place; and Genevieve (Carla Belver), who first went crazy and then, on her 57th birthday, went blind, tormented by her husband, named (wait for it) John.

Eventually, it begins to dawn on us that her bizarre fears and Jenny's are similar, as are their names, including a fear of objects (the set is an astonishing collection of authentic tchotchkes) that may have souls and that may be judging and watching. (The idea of feeling watched is, of course, essentially theatrical: Aren't we, the audience, the watchers?)

The capstone to this similarity between the women is Genevieve's preferred room in the B&B, named (wait for it) the Jenny Wade; she, Google tells me, was collateral damage in the Battle of Gettysburg, having been shot through her kitchen window while kneading bread dough. Her memorial statue may be the statue that figures in Elias' last, unfinished, story as he tells it to stiff-as-a-statue Jenny.

When I asked Matthew Decker, the young, soft-spoken but quick-talking director, about the challenges of presenting this mystifying play, he replied: "The mystification should become fun and engaging. We should make the audience lean forward, keep them intrigued. It's clear why she set the play in Gettysburg, using the spooky aspect of it, since the entire town is built around the bloodiest battle in the history of our country, and keeping the spirit of the people who died there alive."

One of the major difficulties in directing the play, Decker said, is toughing out the silences: "Silence makes us so uncomfortable -- we're always getting dinged and tweeted and pinged -- so we learn about people during silences. Most plays are about 'louder, faster, funnier, go go go,' but this play would not be nearly as impactful if you sped through it."

Having directed Circle Mirror Transformation a couple of years ago, Decker fell in love with Baker's work. "Baker's plays are fragile," he said. "In this play, which is so unique, she's breaking into new territory, away from the hyperrealism of the earlier work. I don't want to put my stamp on this play; I want to serve it."


Inanimate objects play a large part in the play -- watch the doll! The set is crammed with figurines and teddy bears,  china, and candles, with not a spare inch of surface unfilled. Some are comforting, some startling, some malevolent. Some we can't even see on high shelves or around corners, but they're there. Chris Haig, prop master, had the task of finding all this stuff in donations from Arden's donors, from his own mother, in thrift shops, flea markets, on eBay, anywhere he could lay his hands on them. A real player piano was donated, and Haig researched the songs named in the script and found the original scrolls. "I've been looking forward to this show all season, and planning since the summer," Haig said. "It's fun -- you go into a shop and say, 'I'll take all your bells.' "

Nancy Boykin plays Mertis. She says she based her character's distinctive, halting walk on her memory of her mother. Her large role -- what is called "the lifting character," the one who is funny -- anchors the entire play. She said it "is like playing Chekhov -- to find a reality as the little things mount up."  The play is daunting, she said, because it's about so many things, realistic things like running a B&B or caring for a sick husband, and also "the mystical things that she and Genevieve know about -- the Beyond." The challenge is how to find the right balance "out of nothingness, out of air." Annie Baker did say that Mertis is a witch, although Boykin is emphasizing her nurturing side. Additionally, she's the Master of Ceremonies, as Mertis becomes the playwright's surrogate. She's in charge of time (watch the clock!) and she draws the curtain to end each act.

Carla Belver plays Genevieve, the play's most bizarre character. "That's what made me want to do it," she said. As a character, she is potentially malevolent, but Belver has decided Genevieve has "found a real peace" after all the turmoil of her life. When I asked how she learned to play a blind person, Belver replied, "I didn't have to learn anything. At first I wanted to do it without the glasses" -- as she says this, her pale blue eyes lose focus and wander across my face without seeing me -- "I don't know how I knew how to do it. I just did it."  That's an actor talking.

John by Annie Baker. Through Feb. 26 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St. Tickets: $15-$58. Information: 215-922-1122, ardentheatrecompany.org

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