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Annie Baker's contemporary American opus comes to the MTC, helmed by new resident director Sarah Goodes
If it weren’t already taken by Ibsen, Annie Baker’s latest play could easily have been titled ‘A Doll’s House’. Characters are obsessed with the sensation of being watched, and not necessarily by God. Miniatures, toys and figurines occupy the set with more assurance than the humans, and one character expresses the horror of a doll’s life, “to be a piece of plastic or glass, and to be shaped into a human form and trapped”. The effect is to magnify the characters’ humanity rather than diminish it; in a doll’s house, it is the watcher who breathes life and shuts it away, and who also bears the moral responsibility for the doll’s existence.
Of course, the metaphor is perfect for the theatre, and Baker’s work plays very interesting games with notions of realism, of stage time and of storytelling. The setting is a B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Mertis (Helen Morse) and her unseen husband George. A young couple, Jenny (Ursula Mills) and Elias (Johnny Carr), come to stay, ostensibly to tour the historical sites, but really to mend their broken relationship. Mertis’s blind friend Genevieve (Melita Jurisic) comes over to chat and drink Pinot Grigio. Plot wise, that’s pretty much it.
But oh, how much Baker manages to layer into that simple concoction; the play deals profoundly with the idea of the buried and half-remembered past, and the cold grip it can have on the present. In much the same way as the house is thought to be haunted by the ghosts of the civil war, Jenny is haunted by guilt, but instead of facing her recent infidelity she focuses on the guilt she felt towards a childhood doll. Elias is consumed with rage against injustices both real and imaginary, and uses his girlfriend’s transference to torment and punish her.
Through the course of the play, both will be given succour by the elderly women – who display a wisdom hard-won and entirely devoid of romantic cliché – but it is difficult to tell if this does them any good. Baker leaves so much on the table, so many possible ways to interpret her characters’ motives and inclinations, that even the most basic truths are left in doubt or just out of reach. Images recur and phrases repeat like a palimpsest or a series of leitmotifs, and the effect is of vast inner worlds opening up, to the connections with other people but also to the connections with history itself – to the history of feminism, the history of slavery, the history of war and retribution.
Director Sarah Goodes steers the action with impeccable timing and control; Baker’s long naturalistic pauses are weighted beautifully and there isn’t a moment of laboriousness or superfluity. This is particularly vital given the three hour running time. Elizabeth Gadsby’s set, with its intricacies and multiple revolves, feels so authentic it starts to oppress, entirely in keeping with the ominous undercurrents in the play. Richard Vabre’s lighting design is just as meticulous and atmospheric.
For all this, though, it’s the performances that will remain in the memory. Morse is exquisite as the bird-like Mertis, utterly aware of the marching inexorability of time but still alive to the small joys of existence. Whether singing the praises of collective nouns or describing the darkening evening sky, she glows with a melancholy sense of wonder and compassion. Jurisic is effortlessly mesmerising as the blind and caustic Genevieve, hilarious and touching in equal measure. It’s hard to remember two finer performances on one stage. Mills and Carr are also excellent as the troubled young lovers, juggling their resentments with habitual determination.
Baker’s previous play, The Flick, was very good indeed, but John feels like a completely new benchmark for her; its mysteries are more profoundly embedded, its imagery and poetry operating on a higher plane. She has managed to find a theatrical language that captures the rhythm of human breath, and in the character of Mertis an embodiment of human grace. At one point she recalls a phrase she heard somewhere, one that has stuck with her for reasons she can’t explain. “Deep calling unto deep”.