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Finding Deeper Meaning in John

Annie Baker's play explores the tangible and intangible in relationships and the world at large.

Nancy Robinette, Jonathan Feuer, and Ilona Dulaski in John, directed by Joe Calarco, at Signature Theatre.
(© Margot Schulman)

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker is a playwright who relentlessly seeks to uncover the truth about her characters, no matter how long it takes to reveal that truth. Her John, in which realism abuts the mysterious, is enjoying a cleverly crafted Washington premiere at Signature Theatre. It is a perfect example of the excruciatingly precise, methodical way Baker lays bare the best and worst elements of her characters' natures.

The play begins with two Brooklynites, Jenny (Anna Moon) and Elias (Jonathan Feuer), stopping at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on their way home after spending Thanksgiving with Jenny's family in Ohio. They've driven that route for Elias's sake. In his youth, he was a Civil War buff. While Jenny could care less about the bloodiest battle in the Civil War, it quickly becomes clear that Elias always gets his way — which is part of the reason why their three-year relationship is on the rocks. Meanwhile, Elias also doesn't trust Jenny because he is sure she is still in contact with a man from her past.

Their crumbling relationship is impossible to ignore in the ancient B&B where the walls are paper-thin. The owner, Mertis (Nancy Robinette), hears Elias and Jenny arguing upstairs and tries to draw the couple out about their troubles. The B&B also has a frequent visitor in Mertis's best friend, Genevieve (Ilona Dulaski). Genevieve, who is blind, frequently comes to the B&B so Mertis can read to her.

Robinette is superb as Mertis, a woman who is deeply moved when she sees the psychological pain Elias inflicts on his partner. She responds in typical loving, motherly fashion. And yet Robinette balances her character so that she does not become an interfering, overbearing type. Moon plays the independent, intelligent Jenny with grace. She also nicely plays up Jenny's unrealistic side — she believes that her childhood dolls are alive — and Moon thoroughly delivers on the most complicated issue in the play: whether Elias's moods should be forgiven or whether her insecurities are the root cause of their inability to live together.

Jonathan Feuer and Anna Moon share a scene in Annie Baker's John at Signature Theatre.
(© Margot Schulman)

Feuer allows Elias's nasty personality to come to the surface and fester. Right from the start, he makes it clear that he is persnickety and used to getting his own way. Dulaski provides the majority of the comic relief in John. Whether Genevieve is recounting the seven stages in which she went mad, or the way she was convinced that her husband was inside her body, Dulaski approaches life with a nonchalance and unflappable nature that is a pure delight.

Joe Calarco directs John with a light touch, emphasizing its humor as well as its eeriness. Paige Hathaway's scenic design reveals the front room of the bed-and-breakfast, in which every inch is stuffed with dolls and tchotchkes. A huge Christmas tree dominates the set, while a player piano that spontaneously turns on and off as if controlled by a ghostly presence stands next to a set of stairs that lead up to the guest rooms.

Although the surface of John is about the importance of the here and now, its real interest is in an intangible world. This layer of consciousness that lies under the super-rationality of everyday living is where Baker really digs deep. It's where she finds the language to discuss the constant pressure of loneliness most people feel as they grope for love and acceptance in a mundane world where truth is always just beyond their grasp..