If you're having relationship problems, chances are that a desperate road trip to a haunted bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pa. is not going to solve them.
In fact, a dimly lit house filled with creepy tchotchkes and surrounded by fields where the severed limbs of soldiers were once stacked 10 feet high, might tend to exacerbate the situation.
And that's just what happens to the star-crossed couple at the center of Annie Baker's black comedy "John," two people whose harrowing pasts have haunted them into separate corners from which they cannot escape.
David Oliver's production of the play, a surprisingly funny exploration of unresolved anguish and the disparate ways we react to it, opened the Road Less Traveled Productions 2017-18 season on Sept. 8.
For audiences inured to formulaic contemporary dramas, "John" is refreshing from the start. Its setting, represented by Dyan Burlingame's spot-on interpretation of a kitsch-laden Pennsylvania homestead, is a calculated balance of comfort and menace. A jukebox that seems only capable of playing Bach fugues, a tiny doll with dead eyes and a mysteriously empty picture frame are counterbalanced by a fluffy couch complete with afghan, a menagerie of miniature houses, a glowing Christmas tree and a jar of frosted cookies.
The story, too, fits no familiar formula. The couple, played by Adam Yellen and Sara Kow-Falcone, arrive at the bed and breakfast to meet its gregarious owner Mertis (Darleen Pickering Hummert). The point of contention is not immediately clear, but the nosy Mertis pulls it out of her guests in gradual revelations. There has been childhood abuse. There has been cheating. And now there is just simmering distrust, surrounded by the ghosts of the Civil War.
It is a testament to Baker's writing and Oliver's direction that this show does not feel plodding, aside from a pair of overlong exchanges in the second and third acts and an unnecessary bit of four-wall breaking comic relief at the end of the second act. It's slow like a Sunday afternoon, unfolding in graceful adagio and punctuated with staccato passages of rage.
The performances, for the most part, are also well-plotted. Yellen, one of Buffalo's most gifted young actors, portrays his character as a vibrating ball of unsolved issues and insecurities, desperate to be alone but unwilling to admit it. Kow-Falcone's character hides insecurities much better, but in flickers reveals them to be just as deep and disturbing.
But it is Pickering-Hummert who commands and deserves the most attention. Her naturally lucid manner of speaking is perfectly suited to the character, whose folksiness and magnanimity should not be mistaken for naïveté. Baker presents her to us as someone who has had a challenging past, like her young guests, but figures out how to incorporate it into her life and derive pleasure from her existence in a way they have not.
Pickering-Hummert also delivers some of the funniest lines, as when she explains matter-of-factly to Kow-Falcone's character that she is "a tiny bit of a mind-reader" or reads a passage from H.P. Lovecraft to her unhinged sister (Priscilla Young Anker).
Anker, in too much makeup and an unconvincing wig, overplays her character, whose dialogue is campy enough without needing to be painted over with an extra gloss of it.
Despite this off-note, and a few scenes where your attention is likely to flag, open-minded theatergoers will hardly realize they've spent more than three hours in their seats. Baker's play, and this keen production, leaves you with a sense of menace, a strange sense of wonder and a sense that no one escapes the past. Some people just learn better than others how to live with it.
★ ★ ★ (out of four)
A black comedy by Annie Baker, runs through Oct. 1 in the Road Less Traveled Theatre, 500 Pearl St. Tickets are $20 to $35. Call 629-3069 or visit roadlesstraveledproductions.org