They write country songs about hard-living, heavy-drinking heartbreakers like John. Julie Marie Myatt has written John Is A Father, a play with the heart, humor, and emotional wallop of her unforgettable The Happy Ones, albeit on a smaller scale, and if you happen to miss Sam Anderson’s masterful performance in the title role, trust me, you’ll be kicking yourself when awards season arrives.
Myatt introduces us to 60something John in a pair of comedic vignettes opposite a trio of men John’s age, a skid-row bum named Edward (Mark Costello) and a decades-long couple named Kenneth and Doug (Carl J. Johnson and John Gowans), the threesome making it clear that if John hasn’t been lucky in love like the latter two, at the very least he hasn’t fallen quite as low as the former, though as we’ll soon learn, he had come darned close.
The bag of fruit John delivers to Edward suggests a man making amends for past wrongs, his humorous banter with the homeless Vietnam vet ultimately revealing decades-old transgressions most men would be loath to admit.
John then heads off for Phoenix on a mission, one we learn more about when he is quizzed by loquacious fellow air traveler Kenneth, a man whose good-natured inquisitiveness knows no social filter (to his more reserved other-half’s eternal loving dismay).
Now perhaps, however, he can reclaim it, even if a generation too late.
If I’m being deliberately vague about John’s past, his present, and Patricia (Hilary J. Schwartz), the young woman he will meet at this particular journey’s end, it is because much of what makes John Is A Father a seventy-minute gem is its writer’s deliberate, painstaking parsing out of biographical details, and far be it from me to spoil her surprises.
Are some offenses unforgivable, no matter the repentance of the sinner? Can even the basest among us find redemption and amazing grace?
It is, of course, Myatt’s role as playwright to decide if John is granted forgiveness by those he has victimized or by those who have loved his victims. She leaves it to us to determine whether we agree with their decisions, though with Anderson giving the proverbial performance of a lifetime as John, one thing is certain:
The man we end up discovering will be nothing close to a two-dimensional monster, though in an extended scene opposite an effortlessly natural Schwartz (oceans deep in a performance that gives her scene partner as good as she gets), Anderson reveals the powder keg still lurking under John’s wounded, defeated exterior.
Costello is so authentically, deliciously irascible as Edward, you’d think director Dan Bonnell (doing superb work himself) had cast him at a downtown rescue mission. Stage vets Johnson and Gowans deliver absolutely delectable performances as a couple who’ve been together so long, they complete each other’s sentences (and lives). And Elliot Decker’s brief but luminous moments as Reggie are ones you will not soon forget.
Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s stacks of variously shaped cubes take us from skid row to airport waiting room to Phoenix hotel (and have an eye-opening surprise in store). Projection/lighting designer Tom Ontiveros’s black-and-white video sequences add a cinematic quality to John’s journey, both literally and figuratively. Sound designer David B. Marling’s pitch-perfect musical soundtrack and ambient effects and Michèle Young’s just-right costumes complete a topnotch production design.
Running concurrently with Myatt’s bittersweet and touching Birder, John Is A Father offers us the Chicago-based writer at her remarkable best. It is that rarity among plays, one that could run twice as long and you wouldn’t mind it one single bit.
The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood.
May 29, 2106
Photos: Michèle Young