Theatre Review: ‘John’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

Darleen Pickering Hummert, Priscilla Young Anker andSara Kow-Falcone in ‘John’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

It’s funny how history can play tricks on you. Isn’t the past supposed to be static?  But if history is driven by the people who made the moments, do their spirits live on to remind you, change you, haunt you?

This cohesive meshing of story, set, and character make “John” a stand out.   

This mystical mixture of the past and its influence on the present is center stage in “John,”  the season opener for Road Less Traveled Productions. In nearly three-hours and two intermissions, we’re focused on the world inside a charming bed and breakfast near Gettysburg, PA where travelers Elias (Adam Yellen) and Jenny (Sara Kow-Falcone) struggle with their relationship and heady issues of the day: her phone keeps pinging with texts; he chews his Fruit Loops too loudly; and they are in love but there are lies and truths giving them pause.

Mertis Katherine (“it’s my given name, but you can call me Kitty,” she says) is the lady of the house, winningly portrayed by the Darleen Pickering Hummert.  Kitty loves her home’s history and mystery. It was once a war hospital, you see, and amputations were quite common. Limbs were often stacked higher than the windows. Maybe that accounts for some of the strange happenings there. The orchestrion (think player piano with a mini tambourine and bells inside) that starts and stops on its own. The Christmas tree lights that blink on and off. The whooshing sounds of birds in flight. And the one small room that’s supposed to be off limits to guests. This place is her haven, where she memorizes bird facts, writes in her journal, and reads to her blind friend Genevieve (Priscilla Young Anker).

Playwright Annie Baker’s story peels off in layers that draw you in. While Elias spends hours touring Civil War sites, quirky Kitty and crusty Genevieve muse to Jenny about their pasts.  She tunes into their messages, like a student of life listening to two crones. But something strikes a chord. Genevieve’s ex-husband is named John (“But I called him Jack,” she says) and Jenny admits there’s a man in her past named John, too. “Everyone knows someone named John,” Genevieve sniffs dismissively.

It’s labeled as a comedy and while there are plenty of funny moments, Baker’s poignant dialogue (softened by well-timed pauses) is wistful and rich with thought. It’s a script that doesn’t answer all the questions it asks, but that’s what makes it so grand: you’re left to sort it out and linger in that deliciously provocative way that’s the essence of exceptional theatre.  This is the real deal.

Director David Oliver paces this show perfectly: you don’t feel the three hours at all. I couldn’t imagine a more suitable cast: Hummert as Kitty is both nurturing and strong; Anker’s Genevieve is salty and irascibly funny; Yellen plays Elias deftly with the perfect amount of chip on his shoulder ; and Kow-Falcone as Jenny is solid and a fine match for her character.

The true star is Dyan Burlinghame’s set and the well-designed lightening and sound designs by John Rickus and Katie Menke respectively. There are moments when the action is taking place offstage so your eye can linger on the set’s fine details. This cohesive meshing of story, set, and character make “John” a stand out.   

Running Time: 3 Hours with two 10 minute intermissions.

“John” runs until October 1, 2017 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘John’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

When it comes to contemporary theatrical pieces, Road Less Traveled Productions is a trail blazer at finding the newest, hottest content to present in their season line-up. This year alone, Road Less Traveled is producing four contemporary pieces that are some of the most discussed and popular scripts being produced across the country by professional theatre companies. Road Less Traveled kicks off their 2017/ 2018 season with ‘John,’ a comedy written by Annie Baker.

‘John’ tells the story of a couple who stay at a mysterious bed and breakfast, all the while reliving and battling memories, interacting with a strange American Girl doll, and being haunted by their own past. Director David Oliver brings this Western New York Premiere to the Road Less Traveled stage.

“I had been aware of Annie Baker, because she is really hot right now,” says Oliver, who coincidentally will be directing a second Annie Baker piece later this season. “Scott Behrend, the artistic director at Road Less Traveled, offered the show to me, and I was intrigued by the script and the story.”

As mentioned earlier, ‘John’ is just one of four contemporary shows being produced by Road Less Traveled this season. Contemporary shows are not always given a chance in the Buffalo market, because our audiences are accustomed to the tried and true classics that they are familiar with. “Scott really has been pushing these new shows, and is very familiar with what is new and exciting,” says Oliver who also adds that Buffalo is starting to see a younger theatre audience who is familiar with these shows and has an interest in seeing them, “this wasn’t the case five, or ten years ago.”

‘John’ was nominated in 2016 for five Lucille Lortel awards and six Drama Desk Awards. It is safe to say that this show has generated some buzz. “There is a great mystery to the show. The writing is very naturalistic, the situations that are set up are very interesting, but they are not all resolved,” says Oliver, “the back stories of the characters are not elaborated, all questions are not answered, but the show is very cleverly written.”

This might not be the type of show that the traditional Buffalo theatre goer is accustomed too, but Oliver says the audience should meet the playwright half way, and bring an open mind to the  story. “Some audiences are looking for something different, and this is different, but it’s engrossing. The character relationships are exciting and deep. The writing has a great rhythm to it, and there is an interesting supernaturalist element juxtaposed to the everyday reality we can all relate to.” Oliver also adds that audiences will be treated to good quality writing.

When asked what responsibility a director has when mounting a regional premiere, Oliver says that there is nothing special that has to be done, “you need to get the word out about the show since it is not going to be a brand name piece that they are familiar with.”

Starring Darleen Pickering Hummert, Priscilla Young Anker, Sara Kow Falcone and Adam Yellen, “this cast is incredibly talented,” says Oliver.

‘John’ opens September 8, 2017, runs until October 1, 2017 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration provided by the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo.