Big Bad John at Arlington’s Signature Theatre

Cancel that reservation at the Bed and Breakfast. Chances are it’s run by a slightly eccentric 60-something who likes to tell stories about all the ghosts that inhabit available suites named after deceased presidents. Unlike impersonal hotels, B&Bs encourage bonding among the guests, late nights and early mornings where secrets long buried are trotted out for introspection. The breakfast part of the deal is thrown together haphazardly, but the alcohol is plentiful and free. 

What greets us as we enter Arlington’s Signature Theatre is a collector’s dream and a cleaner’s nightmare. Virtually every inch of the stage is filled with knick-knacks. Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway must have spent weeks carefully selecting each item which together provide the backdrop for what is to follow. It’s not the Bates Motel (we never see a shower), but the interactions and tensions on stage keep us on the edge of our seats. And we stay that way for a whopping three hours plus (with two intermissions). Despite the length of this play by Annie Baker, you won’t find yourself bored. It’s a little like witnessing a train wreck. You know these characters are heading for a major crash, but you can’t stop watching. 

Nancy Robinette

While not receiving credit in the program, there should be one for Samantha. In case you are not familiar with her, Samantha has the honor of being one of the first American Girl dolls to represent a specific time period, in her case the early Edwardian Era, which was the Early 20th Century. (Doll collectors take note: Samatha was “retired” in 2009, so if you have one in pristine condition, you can sell it on eBay for tons.) I don’t know if the Samantha doll that takes center stage (literally and figuratively in John) is collection worthy, but she certainly has an impact. Dolls have long been a favorite for little girls the world over, fed, fussed over, and taken to bed. But dolls have also been employed to great effect in horror films. Chucky? Annabelle? Creepy Doll? Besides Samantha, there are many, many dolls on stage during John, and having so many glass-eyed figures staring at the audience only adds to our discomfort.

This B&B is located near the Gettysburg Battlefield, an apt metaphor. Elias (Jonathan Feuer) and Jenny (Anna Moon) are passing through after spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family. Elias is a Civil War buff, Jenny less so. The B&B’s parlor is dominated by a large Christmas tree which seems to have a mind of its own, with lights turning on and off at various times. Proprietor Mertis (Nancy Robinette) not only greets her guests, but keeps up a steady dialogue about the house, its history, and her past. She’s been married twice and her current husband is very ill. She talks about caring for him, but we never see him. Does he really exist, or is he another ghost in residence?

Ilona Dulaski, Anna Moon, and Nancy Robinette

Mertis’ friend, Genevieve (Ilona Dulaski) is a frequent visitor and has her own tales to tell. Genevieve is blind, yet perhaps because she’s not distracted by all the clutter, she seems to see things very clearly. What she sees, and what we witness, is the unraveling of Elias’ and Jenny’s relationship. Jenny is having her period and in pain. The wine supplied by Mertis not only eases Jenny’s cramps, but loosens her tongue. What we don’t learn about Jenny’s relationship with Elias during these tabletop chats, we hear for ourselves when the couple engages in verbal battles. The stage set in these instances works quite well. We can’t see the pair in their upstairs room, but we can catch snippets of their angry arguments.

Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer

It all gets down to trust. Elias believes that Jenny is cheating on him with John. When her phone pings, he insists on reading the text, something Jenny views as an invasion of her privacy. Our sympathies are first with Jenny, then shift to John, and ultimately just come to the conclusion that these two are just mismatched. Whether they can find better partners is the question.

With a four-person play, one weak performer would doom the action. Fortunately that’s not the case here. This is a talented foursome that works together well, yet remain very much individuals. We’re pulled into their stories because we know them. (As Mertis, Robinette so resembled the woman who managed an B&B I once stayed at that I wondered if she had met that woman, too. Note: that B&B was also crammed with dolls and tchotchkes, and was supposedly inhabited by more than one ghost.) Dulaski’s Genevieve might have been spooky if she also didn’t come across as everyone’s overbearing grandmother. Feuer’s Elias will be familiar to women who have had to put up with a partner who is insecure and, because of that, continually sabotages relationships. When Jenny curls up on the sofa with cramps, she seems small and vulnerable, yet Moon’s performance never makes the young woman a victim. 

Nancy Robinette, Jonathan Feuer, and Ilona Dulaski

Director Joe Calarco makes great use of the space and keeps the cast moving and us on edge. By the time Elias, Mertis, and Genevieve are on the sofa nibbling Vienna fingers, they appear exhausted. We are, too, but what we’ve seen is sure to keep us awake for hours.

Photos by Margot Schulman
Top: Nancy Robinette, Anna Moon, and Joanathan Feuer

John
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue
703-820-9771

About Charlene Giannetti (882 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "19 Daniel Highway," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in October, 2018, in New Jersey. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.