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BWW Review: JOHN at Signature Theatre

BWW Review: JOHN at Signature Theatre
L-R Nancy Robinette, Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in Signature Theatre's
production of John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

One thing can be said about award-nominated playwright Annie Baker. She captures the human condition in the most realistic of ways. This is no more apparent than in Signature Theatre's production of Baker's latest work, John. Director Joe Calarco delivers his finest staging to date. He's assembled a superb cast that includes the grand dame of DC theater, Nancy Robinette.

Baker's setting is a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, PA just as the holiday season is getting underway. We meet Martis (Nancy Robinette) the B&B's owner. Her place is fully decorated for the season, including a miniature "Dickens" village (with a working train) and a full size tree. Music is a central part of the experience. Her radio, shaped like a jukebox, plays classical music constantly. She meets her guests for the weekend within the first few minutes of the play. Jenny and Elias (Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer) are a couple with plenty of baggage - they almost broke up a few weeks before their trip. Elias suffers from depression and is more than just a little bit controlling. He also has little regard for Jenny's well-being and doesn't trust her. To give you an idea of the type of guy he is, when Jenny says she has horrible cramps, Elias insists she go on a battlefield tour with him anyway. She eventually makes him drive her back to the B&B before he goes on a night ghost tour.

Following her return to the B&B, Jenny spends some time with Martis and her blind, and somewhat kooky, friend Genevieve (Ilona Dulaski). The three ladies drink wine and tell stories. Jenny learns about Genevieve's complicated past (there's an ex-husband) and a little bit more about Martis. She's apparently married to George, a man the audience never sees who is challenged by illness. When Elias returns, more stories are shared and some past and present truths are revealed. Throughout the course of their stay, Jenny and Elias have to confront childhood memories. An American Girl doll (Samantha, to be precise) is perched on Martis' player piano and brings back some memories for Jenny, which figure prominently in the end of the show.

Through the course of the well-paced three hour plus show, you also come to realize that maybe Mertis' house may also be a little bit haunted. Lights go on and off at the strangest times. The bigger point here though is that you, as an audience member, don't know if Mertis' husband actually exists of if she is just lonely. She takes pleasure in talking to her guests that she hardly knows while serving them Vienna Fingers. Maybe you never know her whole story, but it's a wonderful character study.

Performance-wise this quartet of actors will leave you in total awe.

Ilona Dulaski, as Genevieve, delivers the play's comic moments full out. Her brief return just after you think act two is over gives the play just enough of a little extra boost to take us forward in a light-hearted way. Anna Moon, as Jenny, delivers a powerful portrait of a young girl conflicted over her relationship and in desperate need of something better. Jonathan Feuer, as Elias, shows us how men can treat women so badly. Feuer's performance is spot on.

I've saved the best for last because anyone that knows DC theater probably is aware that when Nancy Robinette is announced as a cast member, it's a total win. Sometimes it's hard to get emotionally involved with Baker's characters (at least in her previous plays), but I guarantee you will feel for Mertis from beginning to end. Her portrayal of Mertis is fragile and subtle and makes clear why Robinette is DC theater royalty. Think Dame Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, or anyone similar. After seeing this performance, I guarantee you will wholeheartedly say that Robinette is in that same class.

The production elements match the acting in spades.

Those of us in the area are likely familiar with the stunning work Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway does. John is no exception. Her full-size living room design, complete with a full staircase, is homey and quaint and adorned with many chachkas.

The set presents a bit of a challenge for lighting designer Andrew Cissna. Hathaway put a ceiling on the set for maximum reality. It unfortunately means that Cissna has virtually no top light positions so everything has to be lit from the front and sides. A lesser lighting designer would panic at this scenario, but Cissna rises to the challenge and creates very moody - and sometimes eerie - and altogether great atmospheric looks.

Kenny Neal's soundscape and Deborah Kim Sivigny's costumes add additional dimensions for a fully sensory experience.

Director Joe Calarco has outdone himself in bringing Baker's world alive. There are many subtleties in Baker's writing. Think about a couple being shown a room upstairs and only being able to hear the conversation without a major set change. Same holds true for an argument between Jenny and Elias later on in the play. Calarco makes these and other nuances totally work while bringing what might be Baker's best script yet to full and beautiful fruition.

For a really full evening or matinee of theater that is the whole package, please consider seeing John at Signature Theatre. The production, cast, and script make the experience totally satisfying, which is a true rarity these days.

Running Time: Three hours and fifteen minutes including two intermissions.

John runs through April 29, 2018 at Signature Theatre which is located at 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA. For tickets, click here.

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