If you want to see an Annie Baker play in Austin, Hyde Park Theatre is the place to go. Now, HPT has gone to work bringing to life Baker’s most recent play, the 2015 off-Broadway hit “John,” with the same energy and subtle verve as they put into previous productions.
“John,” playing through April 1, is the story of Jenny and Elias, a young couple staying at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Mertis, the proprietress of the B&B, seems a little odd to the couple, but they are soon consumed with their own relationship woes and find themselves confiding in her — and her elderly, blind friend Genevieve — in different, unexpected ways.
What makes “John” unique among Baker’s work is that it is the first to take a step away from intense, realistic naturalism to bring in an element of the surreal and, potentially, supernatural. Mertis’ B&B is said to be haunted, and little hints dropped throughout the course of the play lead us to think that there are strange things at work in the old house. The subtle build-up of a tense, macabre feeling resonates throughout the production, mirroring the erosion of Jenny and Elias’ relationship, where bouts of intense anger and disappointment motion towards where the true horror lies.
Director Ken Webster has chosen to fully play into the more surreal aspects of the text, with every aspect of the production playing into either the eerie atmosphere or the painfully real sniping of the young couple. The exquisitely detailed set by designer Mark Pickell puts the audience right in the middle of the B&B’s living room, putting the intimacy of the relationship under the proverbial microscope, while Don Day’s subdued lighting evokes a sensibility that dances between cozy and claustrophobic.
Katherine Catmull, as Mertis, is the mistress of all these strange happenings. She proves to be just off-kilter enough to be simultaneously charming and disturbing, for both the audience and for Jenny and Elias. Lana Dieterich, as Genevieve, is just as strange and given several powerhouse moments to shine, elucidating some of the themes at the heart of the text while also contributing to the overall sense of the uncanny.
On the other hand, Zac Thomas, as Elias, and Catherine Grady, as Jenny, are called upon to be painfully realistic within this abnormal world. Thomas’ Elias is neurotic, awkward and self-conscious in a way that is heartbreaking, tinged with moments of forcefulness that prove more frightening than anything the supernatural might provide. Grady is much more subdued and quiet, with a natural charm that makes Jenny instantly likable, if perhaps not fully trustworthy. In many ways, Grady has the hardest roll to play, and the emotional weight of the play relies on her successfully pulling it off, which she does with great success.
“John” is intentionally not the flashiest of plays, but Hyde Park Theatre’s production brings out the text’s Gothic underpinnings to create a contemporary spooky story that slowly builds in intensity towards an ultimate revelation of what may be the scariest “ghosts” of all.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through April 1
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Information: 512-479-7529, hydeparktheatre.org