A “mix of chaos and stillness”, John hits Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre
The buzz in the audience as I waited for The Company Theatre’s production of John to begin at the Berkeley Street Theatre was, “Did you know it’s over three hours?” and “Did you see how long it is?” Indeed, John is a long play. But don’t let yourself get hung up on the length. It’s worth the time.In John, by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Annie Baker, Jenny (Loretta Yu) and Elias (Phillip Riccio), a young couple whose relationship has hit a rough patch, spend a few days at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, the site of a major battle in the US Civil War. The inn is run by Mertis (Nancy Beatty), a dotty older woman shuffling around in red fuzzy slippers and a fanny pack. Her blind and—by her own admission—possibly insane friend Genevieve (Nora McLellan) comes to visit several times during the course of the couple’s stay.
Sounds like simple enough premise. But John is definitely not a simple play. There are multiple themes and nuances which unfold slowly, quietly, almost mysteriously. There are elements of the supernatural. Genevieve believes the inn is haunted, and there are Christmas lights and a player piano that unexpectedly turn on and off.
There is a more traditional relationship drama. Elias is unable to believe that Jenny is being honest with him. There are issues of loneliness, mental illness and betrayal. But there are also discussions of mystical transcendence and infinite possibility and a surprising amount of laugh-out-loud humour. It’s a lot to take in.
The myriad and somewhat confusing themes are echoed in the set which shows the B&B’s cluttered living room and dining area. Every surface area is crammed with figurines, dolls, stuffed animals and knick-knacks. I didn’t know where to look first and kept noticing more and more details as the evening progressed. In fact, the objects and the house became almost a fifth character in the play. Jenny, for one, believes that objects are watching and judging her.
Nancy Beatty, as Mertis, gave my favourite performance of the night. Although she seemed sweet and somewhat batty at first, Beatty slowly revealed a deep and thoughtful inner world with a rich capacity for beauty. Her moving recitation of the different names for groups of birds almost had me weeping.
Nora McLellan’s Genevieve was also a highlight. Her brusque and blunt manner was both very funny and heartbreaking. Whether she was describing a psychotic episode or explaining why it would be awful to be a doll, she spoke an unvarnished truth.
John is a strange mix of both chaos and stillness. There are long stretches of silence. Other times three different pieces of music are playing at once. There are periods when the stage is empty of activity or actors, while still being full of objects vying for your attention. The dialogue is very natural and realistic which contrasts with some of the wacky things being discussed.
And a lot is left unsaid which sometimes left me wishing for more explanation. There was so much going on, I sometimes felt lost
Yet even after more than three hours, I wasn’t bored. And the next day, I am still thinking about John, happily remembering bits of dialogue or bits of the set. Those three hours have stuck with me and were a great way to spend the evening.
- John is playing from January 29 – February 19 at the Berkeley Street Theatre-Upstairs (26 Berkeley Street)
- See website for dates and showtimes
- Ticket prices range from $20-$40 and are available online or by calling 416-368-3110
Photo of Nancy Beatty, Phillip Riccio, and Nora McLellan by Dahlia Katz.