Director Ken Rus Schmoll on Annie Baker's John

By Elspeth Sweatman 

"John is like going over to a stranger's house and sitting in their living room talking for three hours," says director Ken Rus Schmoll. At the first rehearsal for John at The Strand Theater, Schmoll introduced the play to a rapt audience of A.C.T. trustees, executive producers, staff, and students. "You listen to the other person's story and wonder about his or her secrets. Maybe you ask a few questions, and receive a few answers, but you ultimately leave with both more understanding and less."

Ken Rus Schmoll, director of A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
John, written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker and starring Georgia Engel (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), begins with the arrival of twentysomethings Jenny and Elias at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But in this old house filled with shelves of smiling dolls and tchotchkes, the cracks in their relationship begin to surface.

"Some plays pack a lot of information, ideas, and thoughts into their 90 minutes," says Schmoll. "You can lose track of time and feel like you've lived an entire lifetime. It's a dazzling experience, and an important one in the theater. But Annie's plays are attempting the inverse of that: to never quite lose track of time, to tell a story in which everything is just hinted at."

First rehearsal for John. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
For Schmoll, performing John in San Francisco now feels particularly meaningful. "I've been thinking a lot about the civil divide in our country right now, and the significance of doing a play set in Gettysburg, the site of the worst battle in our Civil War. And while John doesn't particularly address directly our current state, it does examine a world much larger than ourselves: the forces at work in that world and the boundaries that are beyond our comprehension. By pointing out this world, the play opens a door to a state of grace, a state of oneness. I don't know if we ever achieve this kind of oneness as human beings, but as [writer and political activist] Vaclav Havel said, 'It's easy to recognize our differences. What we have to do is try to remember how we're all the same.'"

John runs February 22 through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

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