Lead role in ‘John’ proves to be a challenge

Press pause: While star­ring in John, Nancy Boykin had to know when to de­liv­er her lines, and just as im­port­ant, when to pause for dra­mat­ic ef­fect.

In her 25-plus years as an act­ress, Nancy Boykin of Elkins Park has had her share of chal­lenges in the var­ied roles she’s taken. But her lead­ing role in the Ar­den Theatre Com­pany’s cur­rent pro­duc­tion of John has some new ones.

Boykin’s char­ac­ter, Mertis, is the own­er of a cozy B&B in Gettys­burg, which is the site of a former Civil War hos­pit­al. The bones of dead sol­diers are pre­sum­ably bur­ied out­side. And there’s an air of mys­tery about the place.  

But Mertis is a gra­cious host to a young couple who have come to see the his­tor­ic sites of Gettys­burg, but also have a rift in their re­la­tion­ship, which is part of the fo­cus of the play.

Writ­ten by Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play­wright An­nie Baker, John was ranked by Time magazine on its list of Top Ten Plays for 2015 and won sev­er­al drama awards. The Ar­den pro­duc­tion, which con­tin­ues through Feb. 26, is a Phil­adelphia premiere.

“An­nie Baker has a very par­tic­u­lar and unique style,” said Boykin. “She’s in­ter­ested in com­mu­nic­a­tion and con­ver­sa­tion — in­clud­ing the pauses and sidesteps that come when people are hav­ing trouble com­mu­nic­at­ing.”

The script for John is very spe­cif­ic in terms of pauses and si­lences.

“The pauses might be two seconds long, si­lence may be sev­en seconds, and a long si­lence would be ten seconds,” she ex­plained.

This cre­ates chal­lenges for the act­ors.

“It’s not about si­lence it­self, but about a si­lence filled with mean­ing — it could be awk­ward­ness, dis­ap­point­ment, hor­ror, un­eas­i­ness.” said Boykin. “As act­ors, we have to find a real­ity that makes those pauses mean­ing­ful in that mo­ment.”

Of course, be­sides the si­lences, there are the big chunks of dia­logue that come with a lead­ing role in a play that spans 1 hour and 40 minutes.

“The older you get, the harder the pro­cess is,” said Boykin.

So as soon as she landed the role - back in May — she star­ted work­ing on it.

And no won­der. Dur­ing one page of dia­logue, “I have to list twenty-four dif­fer­ent groups of birds,” she said — and then she starts to reel them off - “a gaggle of geese, a con­gress of crows, a con­voc­a­tion of eagles, a team of ducks” and 20 oth­er groups.

By the fall, she still needed more time to mas­ter all this.

“I hired a Temple stu­dent to help me re­hearse, and that helped,” she said.

But she did en­joy a re­fresh­ing change of pace from the rig­or of mas­ter­ing her role when she and an­oth­er cast mem­ber, Kev­in Mee­han, de­cided to see first-hand the set­ting of the play and took a day trip to Gettys­burg.

“It was a cold, rainy day but still, we took the two-hour au­dio tour and we pretty much covered 80 per­cent of the bat­tle­field story,” she says. “We found all the sites men­tioned in the play.”

They also went in­to the town it­self, took a look at some of the houses men­tioned in the play, and even went to a loc­al diner and star­ted a con­ver­sa­tion with a wait­ress.

“We asked her if she’d heard stor­ies of the town, and did she be­lieve there were ghosts in Gettys­burg, “ re­lated Boykin. “And she said, ‘Ab­so­lutely’ ”

This was rel­ev­ant be­cause pos­sible ghosts are a theme in the play. Al­to­geth­er, des­pite the weath­er, “It was a fun ex­cur­sion,” said Boykin.

Be­sides Boykin and Mee­han, the cast of four in­cludes Jing  Xu. She and Mee­han are the young couple vis­it­ing Gettys­burg. The fourth cast mem­ber is Carla Belver, re­cip­i­ent of a Bar­ry­more Life­time Achieve­ment Award. Belver plays a blind friend of Mertis.

“It’s a priv­ilege and a thrill to be work­ing with her,” said Boykin. “And hav­ing two older wo­men in a cast to­geth­er is a really nice thing be­cause it’s un­usu­al.”

Boykin, too, has had her share of hon­ors, in­clud­ing two Bar­ry­more nom­in­a­tions. One was for out­stand­ing sup­port­ing act­ress for her role in an­oth­er An­nie Baker play, Circle Mir­ror Trans­form­a­tion, a Theat­er Ho­ri­zon pro­duc­tion. That play, like John, was dir­ec­ted by Matt Deck­er, Ar­den as­so­ci­ate artist­ic dir­ect­or.

“He’s a huge fan of  An­nie Baker,” said Boykin.

Now she’s de­lighted to per­form in an­oth­er An­nie Baker play, and to be part of an Ar­den pro­duc­tion.

“Bring­ing a new and dif­fer­ent play to the Ar­den thrills me,“ said Boykin, a board mem­ber of Play Penn, an or­gan­iz­a­tion de­voted to de­vel­op­ing new plays.

“I think the beauty of this play is that it can eli­cit dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions from dif­fer­ent mem­bers of the audi­ence. And I love work­ing with our dir­ect­or Matt and the tal­en­ted cast mem­bers. We’re all en­gaged in try­ing to get the most out of this piece and give that to the audi­ence.” ••

If you go…

John con­tin­ues at the Ar­den Theatre Com­pany, 40 N. 2nd St., through Sunday, Feb. 26. Tick­ets are avail­able by phone at 215-922-1122, on­line at ar­dentheatre.org or in per­son at the box of­fice.

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