Reviewed by Marc Wheeler
Sometimes it’s the simplest stories that pack the biggest punch. Such is the case with John is a father, a delicate portrait of humanity brought to us by accomplished playwright Julie Marie Myatt under the careful direction of Dan Bonnell; The Road Theatre Company giving Myatt’s World Premiere the refined staging it deserves.
John is a father is a story of one man’s quest for redemption, or at least one man’s journey into vulnerability. John (Sam Anderson) has been invited out of state to meet Patricia (Hilary J. Schwartz), his daughter-in-law, and Reggie (Elliot Decker), his grandson, for the very first time. Six years ago his son died in Afghanistan leaving Patricia a widow and newborn Reggie with only stories of the heroic Marine. Decked out in a cowboy hat and jeans (Michele Young’s costumes suitable in their simplicity), John — Ramblin’ Man that he is — begins his Phoenix-bound journey. Hitting the trail from Los Angeles in cowboy boots seems a bit curious. Then again, there’s much about John that’s initially a mystery — and that’s for the best.
Bonnell’s premeditated pacing allows the piece to breathe, giving importance to the otherwise mundane and depth to its inhabitants. The packing of a suitcase, the distant staring into a TV set, it’s life’s quietudes that take us into John’s inner world. Anderson’s ocean blue eyes, wet with fear and regret, provide a window to the soul of a guilt-stricken man who somehow manages to move forward when so much inside him says revolt.
Before John begins his journey we’re introduced to a homeless veteran (Mark Costello) with whom he shares pleasantries and offers apples and bananas like a penance. These two war-torn men (one in actuality, the other in essence) are beautiful to watch, engaging one another the way two Midwestern farmers would tip their hats and weather-chat, bonding through the uncomplicated, earnest act of mutual acknowledgment.
Having said his good-byes after announcing his brief trip, John finds his way to the airport where he meets Kenneth (Carl J. Johnson) and Doug (John Gowans), a crowd-pleasing couple whose decades-long love is evident in every “sweetheart” and “honey” they utter, each man’s quirks and flaws understood and embraced. “I like your hat,” says the unabashed, soft-spoken Kenneth to our coffee-sipping cowboy. It’s winsome, seeing an unsuspecting spirit so boldly spark conversation with a red-blooded stranger. Before you know it, a moment becomes a scene and an unlikely kinship is solidified, gently and without fanfare, before their departures set us up for John’s anticipated arrival in Phoenix.
It’s here our traveler discovers the family he’s never known, and we discover the John we’ve never known, quite possibly revealing our own human nature to judge people differently based on the order in which we acquire pertinent information about them. By the time we get here, though, Myatt’s got us where she wants us.
Schwartz, as Patricia, takes what easily could be a sentimental meeting and tosses it out the window. She’s been through hell, and by the time John arrives she’s no tears left to shed: time’s ticking, practicality’s at hand. That’s not to say the audience has built up her same scar tissue. Schwarz’s commanding performance as a mother bent on defeating tragedy is as strong as her will. And darling Decker as her bright-eyed, curly-haired boy is absolution personified.
Tom Buderwitz’s set, Tom Ontiveros lighting and projections and David B. Marling’s sound design are a tapestry of functional beauty. Buderwitz has utilized a collage of white boxes to create a textured canvas for Ontiveros’s projections that illustrate the locales of John’s pilgrimage. The outer journey eventually unfolds, symbolizing home at the heart of it.
Myatt’s “trust fall” of a script is deceptively simple and sparse, packing silences and subtext with meaning that in lesser hands could surely come crashing down. Fortunately, The Road Theatre’s first rate team provide a solid net with which to catch even the smallest truths that beautifully line its pages.
John is a father proves the transformative power of theater. Spectacle has its place, and there’s certainly plenty of offerings. But sometimes all we need is an everyman story of redemption told through a pair of misty eyes staring through the fourth-wall mirror, aching to give up the fight.
Photo (above) by Michele Young: Mark Costello and Sam Anderson star in the Road Theatre Company’s World Premiere of John is a father, written by Julie Marie Myatt, directed by Dan Bonnell.