In 2014 Annie Baker won the Pulitzer Prize for her well-reviewed play The Flick, which takes place in a movie theatre and offers an interesting insight into a group of employees who work there as they go about their mundane job duties. Her subsequent play, John, which ran Off-Broadway in the summer of 2015, is set in a bed and breakfast and is just as fascinating. John is receiving an excellent production at Stray Cat Theatre in its Arizona premiere with a sensational cast, sublime creative elements, and direction that never falters.
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.