Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Mertis Katherine Graven runs a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Late one winter night a young couple arrives to check in. They are on their way back home to New York City but have decided to make a detour to visit the Civil War battlegrounds. Mertis, who tells everyone that she likes to be called Kitty (though no one ever seems to follow her request), has decorated the house for Christmas and it's stuffed to the brim with holiday decorations and miniature figurines on top of the dolls and an endless assortment of knick knacks that fill every nook and cranny.
Mertis is extremely outgoing and proves a good sounding board for this young bickering couple whose relationship is having some difficulties that are centered on some serious trust issues that escalate during their stay. Mertis' blind, forceful friend Genevieve also offers some life lessons and sage advice to the duo, though her past relationship experience wasn't exactly so successful in that it ended in her having a mental breakdown. But what's the story with Mertis' never seen, but often talked about, husband George or the strange, creepy dolls that line the staircase, and the stranger goings on in the house that include a player piano and Christmas tree that seem to have a life of their own? And just who is John?
Baker has crafted an intriguing dark comedy that is multi-layered, with genuine characters and dialogue that flows naturally. She uses the setting of a bed and breakfast to realistically portray how the characters find out information about each otherthrough the slightly nosey owner who prods her guests for information. She also doesn't rush the action as the characters slowly reveal themselves to each other and to the audience. Her script draws us in by having the play start with Mertis opening up the large red velvet curtains that separate the audience from Eric Beeck's phenomenal set to welcome us to the play, and her home. Baker also has Mertis rotate the hands of the grandfather clock forward by hand to signify the passing of time and she closes the red curtains at the close of each act. These unique touches add a charming theatrical element to the already fascinating play.
Baker also stuffs her comedy with many bits of interesting and mesmerizing pieces of information, comparable to how Mertis' house is stuffed to the brim and overflowing with dolls and tchotchkes. She also has created four realistic and curious characters who are all also slightly strange. The couple, Eli and Jenny, are a bit alienating, passive aggressive, and self-absorbed, and Mertis and Genevieve are definitely kooky, but Baker writes them as complex characters and creates captivating situations that hold your attention. However, the play does have a few small drawbacks. The three hour running time might put some people off and the supernatural, scary elements in the piece never truly come into play beyond being atmospheric.
Director Ron May and his exceptional cast take an appropriate, natural and subtle approach to the material yet also instill a suitable sense of ominous foreboding in the darker moments. These include the times when Eli tells ghost stories to Jenny, the somewhat disturbing facts Mertis mentions about the house, the mysterious existence of her husband George, as well as the intense moments when Eli and Jenny have some truly ugly fights. May stages all of these scenes effectively, making sure the truthful, emotional elements always ring true. But he doesn't skirt the importance of the many quieter times when there is a prolonged silence, pregnant pauses, or just one character alone on the stage doing some mundane thing like eating a bowl of cereal.
The cast is excellent and led by an incredibly shaded and nuanced performance from Sherri Watts as Mertis. Watts superbly gets across this odd, eccentric but extremely kind woman with efficient use of subtle gestures, sly looks, and a sympathetic line delivery. Mertis may be peculiar, but in Watts' capable hands her oddness becomes an endearment. Will Hightower and Michelle Chin deliver realistic portrayals of Eli and Jenny. Like a competitive tennis match, Baker's dialogue and plot make the sympathetic view of these two individuals change throughout the play, based on the characters' actions and as facts of their relationship are revealed. Hightower and Chin's performances stay perfectly in step with the script's demands which at times requires them to become extremely ugly people. They both provide a refined complexity in their portrayals of these suspicious, emotional, empty, conflicted, and contradictory characters. As Genevieve, Debra Lyman is dynamic, abrupt and potent. She speaks her mind and those around her, including the audience, pay attention.
Creative elements are some of the best I've seen from Stray Cat, with Beeck's rich, meticulous set (prop design by Jessica Florez) almost becoming a fifth character in the play due to the amount of realism and detail it incorporates. Dallas Nichols' lighting design washes the stage in evocative colors that signify the various times of day, with a fine use of deep shadows for the many nighttime scenes, and Pete Bish's sound design includes some excellent effects. The natural costume design by Maci Cae Hosler is character specific and allows for nice counterpoints between the younger, suburban Eli and Jenny and the older and more rural Mertis and Genevieve.
Mertis comments that her house is "a strange little place" and while there are a lot of strange things going on in Baker's script there is also a lot of laughter between the moments of mystery. At three hours in length, John may be long but it is never boring and while there might be some strange unexplained things happening in the house there is also plenty of charm and even a decent amount of heart. With excellent direction, a superb cast, and stunning creative elements, Stray Cat Theatre's production is as inviting and full of intrigue as Mertis' strange little house.
John at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through October 1st, 2016, with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at straycattheatre.org.
Written by Annie Baker