A young couple, Elias and Jenny, arrive at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, late in the evening. The place is quaint, lavishly decorated for the holidays, with every corner, shelf and crevice filled to the brim with tchotchkes, antiques, dolls and figurines.
The owner and hostess, Mertis, is aggressively pleasant, apologizing for wearing slippers and exclaiming “Paris” to her guests when she presents the small breakfast area with bistro tables and Eiffel Tower centerpieces.
From the beginning something feels off, as Mertis and Elias squabble about which room the couple will occupy. He’s certain he booked the Jackson room, but she insists they stay in the Chamberlain. As soon as they’re upstairs, the audience eavesdrops on Jenny and Elias arguing offstage.
A lot happens offstage in playwright Annie Baker’s “John.” Certain characters remain entirely offstage: John, Jenny’s sister, and Mertis’ husband, George, who lives in the house but makes no appearance. We don’t get to see much in the way of dramatic action, but we hear about the things we don’t see.
Jenny and Elias both talk at length about their childhoods, and we hear the stories of the memories sparked by the tchotchkes and figurines that line the walls. Genevieve, Mertis’ dearest friend and frequent visitor, tells of how she once went crazy because of a man who got inside of her and tried to destroy her. Later, she addresses the audience directly and tells the story of how she went blind. We hear about Elias’ outings as he explores the historic battlefields, but we stay inside the hostelry, instead listening while the three very different women sip wine and swap stories, all revolving around short-lived or failed connections.
With the constant reminders of offstage action, Genevieve’s fourth-wall breaking and Mertis’ tendency to fuss with the clock and the curtains between scenes, we’re never allowed to forget that we’re an audience watching a play. Connections and illusions are achieved and then deliberately broken, over and over.
Baker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her 2013 play, “The Flic,” and two Obie Awards for “John,” is known for writing plays that bring a sense of real life to the stage. Cadence Theatre Company’s production achieves that sense of voyeurism, of looking in on people’s real lives.
Rich Mason’s meticulously detailed scenic design and the subtly creepy sound design by Ryan Jones and Robbie Kinter capture the eerie atmosphere of the B&B. Under Rusty Wilson’s direction, actors demonstrated balance and restraint, delivering natural performances full of quiet tension. There are some scenes where the acting feels a bit too much like acting. In particular, heated and physically intense moments between Elias and Jenny sometimes are a touch too restrained to be believed.
At heart, “John” is a play about the ephemeral nature of human connection, the shaky ground we walk in our attempts to truly know one another. Connections between characters are superficial or falsified, like when Jenny smiles and nods before spitting out Mertis’ peanut butter fudge. They deteriorate rapidly over minutiae, such as Jenny and Elias’ argument over his cereal crunching at breakfast. Connections are tenuous at best, and relationships between lovers, friends, audience and artist, all are a quest for a mirror — some reflection of ourselves in one another.
Throughout the play, characters repeatedly discuss a shared sense of being watched. And of course they are being watched — by the audience, each other, a chorus of inanimate objects and perhaps by ghosts as well. Cadence’s “John” is haunting and haunted, full of ruminations on connection and detachment, life and death, love and loneliness — essentially the human condition. S
Cadence’s “John” runs through Nov. 12. Tickets cost $10-$35. cadencetheatre.org.