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Georgia Engel explores sounds of silences in ‘John’

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Georgia Engel appears in “John,” in a lead role written specifically for her. (Courtesy Stefan Cohen)

Georgia Engel – in San Francisco for the West Coast premiere of Annie Baker’s play “John” — looks and sounds pretty much as she did in 1972 when she made her debut on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Yes, she’s 45 years older, but the pert blonde bob, the bright eyes, and the wide, ready smile are all the same.

So is the voice, soft as a spring breeze and comfy as a plush sweater. That first impression made it easy to underestimate Georgette Franklin, the seemingly bubble-headed bride of Ted Baxter.

“The writers had fun with that,” says Engel in her signature tone. “She looked like the dumbest one in the group and sometimes they’d have her say the wisest thing.”

That included a sage awareness of her sitcom spouse, the preening, blustery newscaster played by the late Ted Knight.

“There was a scene when Mary asked Georgette, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ by marrying him and she said, ‘Yes. Somebody has to love him.’ So, she was not unaware, but I think she saw his kindness.”

Engel experienced Moore’s kindness on more than one occasion.

“One time I got sick during a table read,” Engel recalls. “Mary took me to her trailer, which was right on the set and cleaned me up and changed my clothes. She took such care of me.”

In “John,” opening at the Strand Theatre this week, Engel is recreating her acclaimed Off-Broadway performance as Mertis, a quirky innkeeper who receives some unexpected guests. The role was specifically written for her.

“Annie’s an amazing writer. I happened to go to a talk she gave, and she said, ‘I hear the cadence of an actor, and that makes me want to write for them.’ Later I did a tiny little part in ‘Uncle Vanya’ with her and Sam Gold. On the closing night, she came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘I’m gonna write a play for you.’”

Baker’s canon has been well represented in the Bay Area including productions of “Circle Mirror Transformation,” “Body Awareness” and “The Aliens.”

Her style includes use of silences, which sometimes stymie audiences and actors.

Engel explains, “She has a lot of different things right in the script. A pause is a good amount of time. A silence is longer than a pause. Then, she has a short pause, then there’s ‘a little while.’ They all have little nuances. However, if the audience feels like ‘Did they forget?’ then the actors aren’t fulfilling their job of filling the pause.”


Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays, closes April 23
Tickets: $20 to $105
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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