Annie Baker, Melbourne Theatre Company
Arts Centre Melbourne
Until March 25
Ingmar Bergman once advised that if life was going too fast, you should go to church; and if things were really getting out of hand, the theatre. Annie Baker's John excavates all the wit and truth from that remark. This quiet, exquisitely layered comedy drama plies time with a gentleness, and something approaching reverence, that the world outside rarely allows.
John is set in a quaint B&B near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the American Civil War's bloodiest battle. If that might lead you to expect a ghost story, this is a play festooned by hauntings from the genre. Everything from casual superstition to the eldritch horror of H.P. Lovecraft gets a look-in, but Baker is too fine a playwright to collapse the sense of uncanniness she creates into anything pat.
Rather, she is interested in the various and subtle ways we make concessions to the ghosts that haunt our own lives.
Elderly hostess Mertis Graven (Helen Morse) is a case in point. An avid collector of knick-knacks, she embroiders her solitude with fantasies of life and companionship, and the lights go up on a stage crammed with curios – mean-looking dolls, a model train, a rogue pianola, even a milk-jug shaped like a cow.
Mertis claims to have a sick husband, but is so eager and overattentive with her new guests – a young couple (Johnny Carr and Ursula Mills) who have just hit the auto-destruct sequence on their relationship – you begin to doubt he exists.
Definitely present, however, is Mertis' blind, eccentric friend Genevieve (Melita Jurisic), a kooky old lady fond of tea and bikkies and regaling the room with extravagant tales of madness past.
Director Sarah Goodes gets the comedy flowing effortlessly from the absurdity of the situation, the constant half-sallies into the supernatural, and the sharp contrast between characters from very different generations.
Acting doesn't get classier than Morse and Jurisic in this production. Both ease into sublime, precisely rendered performances, rich in understated humour and with a patina of eeriness to disturb the immediate familiarity of the types they bring to life. It's marvellous to watch these two actors navigate the intricacies of Baker's Chekhovian dialogue with such delicacy and skill.
Carr and Mills aren't at the same level. They have their moments, but tend to emphasise their characters' unlikeable qualities without that complexity or exactitude which might have struck deeper into the lustre and horror of their youth (and emotional immaturity).
Still, Baker is the best American playwright of her generation, and this atmospheric production will enrich and relax, prod and entertain, and perhaps even expand your sense of time a little.
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