On their way home to New York, young couple Elias (Johnny Carr) and Jenny (Ursula Mills) stop off at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As a boy, Elias was a Civil War enthusiast, and a detour into Gettysburg gives him the chance to revisit old passions. It also gives him and Jenny the space to mend a faltering relationship.
The bed-and-breakfast is run by Mertis Graven (Helen Morse) and is a homely establishment, chockfull of ornaments and dolls, even a toy-train that chugs around a miniature village. Its rooms are named after Civil War heroes: Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Joshua Chamberlain, Jennie Wade. Both Jackson and Chamberlain were soldiers, Jackson fighting for the confederate forces, Chamberlain on the side of the union. Wade was the only civilian killed in the three day battle that saw approximately fifty thousand casualties among the military forces.
Mertis is a personable host, eager to share stories of her diet secrets and the written record she keeps of each day’s sunset. And when Jenny feels too unwell to accompany Elias on his tours around the battle sites (she has a painful period), Mertis sits with her, the two women opening up to each other about their lives: Mertis can occasionally read minds; Jenny writes questions for a quiz show; Mertis’s second husband (whom we never meet) is seriously ill; Jenny has had an affair with a man called John, and Elias no longer trusts her.
Annie Baker’s plays have never really been about plot, and John is no exception. It is, in essence, a very simple ‘will they stay together or won’t they’ story, with all the colour and texture deriving from the context in which Baker places her characters and the degree to which that context pushes against the existing fault-lines in their relationships.
In the case of John, it’s the otherworldliness of the bed-and-breakfast (the staring dolls and ornaments; the Christmas lights that flicker on and off; the pervasive cold; the strains of Bach’s St Matthew Passion) that begin to subtly shape the characters’ lives. So too the haunted battlefields themselves.
What Baker is playing with here is the notion of time, and the way that history – whether we’re aware of it or not – impresses itself on the present moment. It’s a fascinating theme to be exploring, but Baker never does anything very interesting with it. She infuses the play with disparate elements that faintly hint at the way lives and histories interweave (the repetition of certain names; the bed-and-breakfast’s role as a military hospital during the war; the ghosts that linger about the house and battlefields; the occasional snatches of Latin that Mertis utters) but chooses not to draw any explicit connections between these elements. It is, in many ways, like the ghost stories Elias tries to tell – once he’s introduced the ‘ghost’, he’s never quite sure what to do with it.
It may be that, without any knowledge of the significance of Gettysburg (outside of Lincoln’s famous speech), I missed a lot of what’s resonating beneath the surface of John, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. Baker likes to slow down, even underplay the drama; to score it with pauses and hesitations that speak to how we relate to each other in real life. As anyone who has seen Baker’s The Flick knows, this can be an effective device when there’s sufficient energy and substance in the dialogue – and in the relationships between characters – to carry us across the silences. But that doesn’t happen here. What we’re left with is dead space and characters about whom it’s difficult to really care. Nothing of any great import seems to be at stake, and whether Elias and Jenny stay together, whether they find any sort of transcendence by the end of the play, seems neither here nor there.
All the actors make the most of the little they have to work with. Miller’s Jenny is suitably sulky and tentative, and as Elias, Johnny Carr creates some of the few really electrifying moments. Helen Morse is a reliably fey Mertis, and her regular comings-and-goings punctuate the action. As Genevieve, Mertis’s blind friend, Melita Jurisic brings gravitas, warmth and some much-needed laughs. Sarah Goode’s direction is solid, but she’s unable to counter the many dull spots in the script.
The real star of the show is the set, and Elizabeth Gadsby must have had a great time of it, coming up with all the furnishings and knick-knacks, not to mention the pianola that likes to suddenly start playing in the dead of the night.
As visually interesting and occasionally intriguing as John is, it’s a play that long overstays its welcome. The ideas are interesting enough, but just throwing handfuls of ingredients into a pot (ghosts, time, memory, birds, music, intuition, history, insanity, illness, death) doesn’t necessarily give rise to something sustaining or meaningful. There needs to be some alchemy at work, and that’s what John is ultimately missing.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Annie Baker
Director Sarah Goodes
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road Melbourne VIC
Dates: 10 February – 25 March 2017