JOHN (Arden): Things that haunt

arden theatre annie baker john review

Nancy Boykin, Carla Belver and Jing Xu in JOHN by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker. Running at Arden Theatre Company through February 26t. Photo by Mark Garvin.

That most-famous of Johns, Mr. Lennon, said it well: “I don’t believe in magic” (… or I-ching, Bible, Tarot, Jesus, Buddha, Mantra, Gita, Yoga, etc.) But even in our post-Enlightenment world, there remains something compelling about ghost stories. Annie Baker’s quietly moving JOHN, now in a subtle production at Arden Theatre Company, demonstrates why: our past haunts just as well as any poltergeist. 

Brooklyn couple Elias (Kevin Meehan) and Jenny (Jing Xu) enter a busily appointed B&B near the battlegrounds of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of dolls and tchotchkes fill the surfaces of Tim Mackabee’s set. “I’ve always worried about objects and what they’re thinking,” Jenny tells Mertis (Nancy Boykin), the older proprietor.

Mertis shares a similar concern for the dolls around her, but she’s also worried about other non-human residents of the house. The playwright stays agnostic about the existence of these supernatural spirits—power surges and an aging building could explain the peculiarities of the bed and breakfast—but there is no doubt that the house and its visitors are haunted.

Elias and Jenny are using this supposedly romantic getaway to escape from events which still resonate through their relationship. Mertis’s blind friend Genevieve hears the voice and opinions of her ex-husband John, decades after their separation. Mertis’s own husband is a mysterious non-presence.

Carla Belver, Kevin Meehan and Nancy Boykin in JOHN by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker. Running at Arden Theatre Company through February 26. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Carla Belver, Kevin Meehan and Nancy Boykin in JOHN by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker. Running at Arden Theatre Company through February 26. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Unfolding over three 45-minute acts, JOHN rarely builds to dramatic climax. There isn’t much drama at all: twice we watch while a character listens to a song all the way through. There are no heroes: Elias and Jenny are both bratish, privileged (and convincingly real in Meehan and Xu’s portrayals). There’s a lot of silence.

That’s the point: like life, JOHN is quiet, its tragedies small, its ghosts real. Some may find it tedious; most won’t.

Annie Baker’s previous works The Flick, Body Awareness, and Circle Mirror Transformation have established her reputation as one of the country’s preeminent young playwrights; JOHN solidifies it.

[Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street] January 12-February 25, 2017ardentheatre.org.

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Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.