Marianne Owen and Suzy Hunt, who have both graced Seattle stages and beyond for many years, star as Mertis and Genevieve in the ArtsWest production of Annie Baker’s John. We sat down with them to discuss their shared history, their characters, and this singular piece of theatre.
ArtsWest: Have you two collaborated prior to this production John?
Suzy Hunt: We’ve been in two plays. We were in Enchanted April – that was the first play we were in, and we got Marianne got to be an Italian. I got to be an older British woman. We were a lot younger – and now I’m old enough to play the part! [Laughs] That’s always the way it is. And then the other play that we were in was The Women, which was a community effort in so many ways, both in terms of the technical aspects, but there were so many actors – how many? 16 women?
Marianne Owen: I think 20.
SH: Were there that many? We double the cast as some of you know. But it was directed by Warner Shook at ACT. It was very stylish production, clothes and everything. And it was a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun doing that play. And there’s even a picture of Marianne and the rest of the cast and and me in my kitchen and home. If you notice that in your kitchen you know you didn’t tell me. David Zinn, who is a Broadway costume designer – a brilliant man who’s from Bainbridge, I believe –
MO: Yes he is.
SH: Well, he’s a fine fellow, and he did the costumes for the show.
MO: Boy were we lucky.
SH: We were! Oh my god. It was just an amazing experience. So those are the two shows. But I’ve seen Marianne in and so many different kinds of roles, and I have to one of my most favorite ones was the Tennessee Williams. She played Big Momma [in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof]. You were wonderful in that. And another play I saw her in was a play that I did, Trip to Bountiful.
AW: I’m curious to hear what you have to say about your characters – the kind of relationship that your characters have with each other.
MO: They’re tight. My character [Mertis] came to Gettysburg 15 years prior to the setting of the play. And I think she was under considerable amount of duress from a marriage that had been troubled. We haven’t figured exactly how we [Mertis and Genevieve] met.
SH: No, not exactly but we figure it’s maybe church based.
MO: Could be.
SH: Or community based, where I might have met her at a dinner somewhere. It’s not a huge town.
MO: No, no. And Mertis had kind of a similar background with Genevieve, in regard to our former husbands.
SH: Yes, we both had unpleasant experiences with men. I mean exceedingly unpleasant experiences with men.
MO: And they survived it. And what they seem to exemplify in this play is that, while they enjoy each other’s company, they’re both on some sort of intellectual and spiritual quest. And that’s not heady – that’s not focused in a religious group, you know, any special religion.
SH: No, no. And also I kind of feel like, even though we’re on this quest, there are parallel lines that occasionally cross. Because Mertis runs this B&B, and I have to live with my nephew, and maybe that situation is not the best that it could be. So we occasionally – maybe two or three times a week – meet and kind of share notes and continue the process of getting older and living in the world.
SH: With people who have not maybe experienced all the things we have. And there’s a kind of a purity to that – that you’ve gone through the storm.
MO: Yeah. And you’ve survived just fine. In fact, you’re on a better plane.
SH: You are. My character’s blind in the play. And so all of the metaphors apply, and [the notion] that a blind person’s other senses are so keen that they in some ways are able to perceive things in the world that a sighted person wouldn’t be able to. And I’m older than Marianne’s character by about 10, 12 years – somewhere in there – so that that difference is, you know, closer to death if you will. But we both have a sense of humor and a love of cookies. [Laughs]
MO: And music.
SH: Oh yes, of course. And she most particularly loves Bach.
MO: Yeah, and you most particularly love Ferlin Husky.
SH: That’s right. That’s our song. So you kind of get the feeling that we’re country western folk.
MO: Yeah! I mean, they just they’ve got a broad palette of life experiences and enjoyments.
SH: Yes. I’ve always thought this about my character: is that I would like to have her as a friend. Because she speaks her mind.
MO: Oh yeah. She’s a hoot!
SH: She’s a little bit circumspect – she doesn’t speak up all the time. In fact, if she is seeing something that is particularly hurtful she clams up like a clamshell. Until maybe she feels safe to talk.
AW: Are there any ways that you’ve been struck by how much you’re like or unlike your character – moments of similarity, or stark dissimilarity?
MO: A lot of what my character does, I’m discovering in this rehearsal process, is listen. A lot of yesterday’s rehearsal where we were what we call “off book” – and that is, you’re looking away from your script, you have a little grasp of it – and you’re actually sitting across the table listening. I really felt like a psychiatrist, because there’s times where she’s just trying to get the other person to talk – to lead them to an understanding that they are “in need of”. I do that a lot. I’ve done that a lot in my life. As far as the other experience coming from a bad marriage situation, I’m blessed in that I’ve never been through that.
SH: I think one of the similarities that you and I both share with our characters – by virtue of what we are, actors – is we like a good story. We like to tell a story, we like to be part of the story. And in this play, particularly, people are always telling stories. Scary stories or stories about their past. At one moment my character comes out and says, “Don’t go away, I’m gonna tell you a story.” I think that that part of that storytelling desire is particularly for my character, because that’s what she does: she talks about her past a little. She talks about how things might happen – and she doesn’t say “you should do this” to anyone in the play. “You should not act like that.” Not to the two young people that are there. But she sort of leads by example, or she tells sort of a metaphoric tale. So that way you and I are storytellers.
MO: But I don’t talk too much about myself. I mean I really have to be not prodded, but asked in the play. There’s more need for her ears than her story at any given point. But she really enjoys people – I mean, that threesome scene we have the three gals – that’s delightful. It’s a delightful scene.
SH: We all add to that in our own particular way. And of course, no one likes it better that when someone comes in and you can see you can be some kind of a teacher to them. So this young person comes, and she is full of problems, self-doubts and things like that. And so you’re sitting down talking to two women who’ve “done it” and in a way we both want to lead her out – in our own way of doing it.
MO: To a place of safety or a place of health.
SH: It’s reductive to say that this play is a feminist play, although there are feminist issues in the play. Big time. Women being kind to one another, sticking up for one another. There is definitely that.
AW: What other themes and ideas are running through John?
MO: I’d say it’s a humanist play, wouldn’t you?
MO: There’s a fellow in the play, very pivotal, to everything that goes along and that I’m very partial to.
SH: He’s all at sea.
SH: And you see that.
MO: Yeah. And I’m just trying to lead him through. I’m very partial to him. He needs my help. So I think it’s a humanist play.
SH: And there’s a lot of humor in it. And the humor comes mostly out of character rather than “jokes”. It’s mostly character driven – well, it’s all character driven.
MO: [Laughing] Her character tells some of the most outrageous and awful things that just she perceives has happened – and I imagine it’s in the umpteenth telling of it.
SH: Oh, I think so.
MO: So that she’s refined her points, like every human does – and I find it hilarious. And I think it’s gonna get some major laughs
SH: From your mouth to God’s ears. But it also talks a lot about dreams in the play. Dreams are mentioned again and again in the play. And I don’t know what else to say except that my character has crazy dreams, crazy dreams.
AW: What are you most excited for audiences to see?
MO: Well I’m fascinated to hear people’s reactions, because each group of citizens – young and old, whatever – are going to take it and get different things from it. It’s loaded with stuff, so I can’t predict. I can say, yes, they’ll be a lot of laughs – but I can’t predict what it’s going to land because there’s so much.
SH: There’s a lot of new territory here. One of the things is the length of this play – that it is longer than most people would maybe generally experience coming to a play. So this playwright Annie Baker takes her time to tell the story and is so generous with her historical references, personal references – you just wonder about this woman’s life, this quiet little woman from the Midwest.
MO: Annie Baker is a major talent.
SH: We haven’t even mentioned this how wonderful it is for this woman to have written a play where there are two women – not just one, but two women – that are older than the age of, say, 25? [Laughs] I don’t want to give away how young my partner is, but I’m no spring chicken. So it’s really great. If anything, the roles like this for women, that are empowered more and more every day, and I think this play sddresses that too. And as a woman, as an actor in the theater, and getting older and looking around for parts – yay Annie Baker!
SH: Do it again please.
AW: Anything else you’d like to say?
SH: I’ve always admired this woman and I am really excited about being in this play with her.
MO: Back at her. Back at ya!