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.