John, by Annie Baker, lays out a premise, then circles it, tantalizing and beguiling. A young couple, Jenny and Elias, come to stay at a Bed & Breakfast in Pennsylvania, close to Civil War battle sites. There is a suggestion that the place is haunted. Mertis runs the B & B, she’s somewhat elderly, and has a best friend named Genevieve, who is blind and possesses a psychic gift. Elias has a keen interest in Civil War history, hence their decision to stay at Mertis’ resort. Elias is Jewish and Jenny is Asian. The home is filled with souvenirs (the Yiddish word is tchothkes) figurines, snow globes, model train, houses. There is also an American Girl Doll, identical to one Jenny owned as a girl.
It’s a given that any skillful writer makes careful decisions, when disclosing information, and Baker is no exception. In some ways John owes a debt to Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and James’ The Turn of the Screw. Baker gives us strange and purposeful details about the lives of the characters, creating a sort of intimacy. We become close, sometimes learning things we’d rather not know. Jenny cannot join Elias on tours because her period has started. Elias is nearly pathologically insecure. Mertis writes journal entries that take bizarre turns. Genevieve speaks as if her ex-husband has taken over part of her being.
The challenge of exploring the otherworldly in literature rests in the realm of suggestion, of italicizing the familiar without a lot of hocus-pocus. Baker pervasively engages the elements of the supernatural in very subtle ways. By themselves they don’t seem especially unsettling, but cumulatively, they create a realm, a gestalt. If some playwrights lead us to the water trough (and stop there) Baker insists we find the water for ourselves. Mertis keeps mentioning George, a sick husband nobody ever sees. Jenny pushes Elias to lose his temper, and John, a former lover, continues to torment their relationship. The player piano kicks in as if by some trigger, that we can’t quite place. Genevieve sits and listens to the couple fight, without letting them know that she’s there. Eerie anecdotes are shared, but they seem to hinge on the reliability of the teller. We might believe them and we might not.
You might say that John dangles on a cusp between the possible and the plausible. The characters speak casually (by way of friendly conversation) of the ghoulish, the cosmic and the implacable. Baker considers how other entities (human and otherwise) intrude, taint and linger in the mind, memory and perception. Much as we ache for some irrefutable manifestation of paranormal presences, she gives us just enough intellectual (yet raw) matter to place the decision squarely on our shoulders. And it keeps us involved till the final curtain.
Undermain Theatre presents the Dallas Premiere of John by Annie Baker. Playing November 8th – December 10th, 2017. 3200 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-747-5515. www.undermain.org