Strong Women: Mertis and Genevieve in John

By Elspeth Sweatman

During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In John, running through April 23 at The Strand Theater, two characters command center stage: Mertis and Genevieve, not just women but older women. 
Genevieve (Ann McDonough) and Mertis (Georgia Engel) in
A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
At first glance, 72-year-old Mertis—played by Georgia Engel—is a woman who is fulfilling a role we associate with older women; as the owner of a bed-and-breakfast, she has taken on a nurturing, mothering role. She cooks breakfast for her guests and has tea and treats always on hand. Together with her friend Genevieve (aged 85), Mertis provides advice to Jenny and Elias, two twentysomethings who are staying at the b and b.

But we quickly realize that there is much more to Mertis. She has incredible intellectual curiosity. She has read H. P. Lovecraft and Neoplatonist texts. She has memorized dozens of collective nouns for birds: a flock of ducks, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks. Behind her sweet voice and love of tchotchkes lies a woman of complexity and quiet strength.

This characterization grew out of the connection between Georgia Engel and Annie Baker. “I worked with Georgia for the first time in 2012 on a production of Uncle Vanya, and I felt like the two of us understood each other completely,” said Baker in an email interview with A.C.T. “I started writing John for her, and I kind of built the whole play around her. Our work together and our mutual love and understanding was a big part of the process.”

Mertis’s friend Genevieve also does not conform to the typical old woman stereotype. At the age of 85, she is not afraid to talk frankly about her body or express her opinion. She joins Mertis in discussions of hefty and varied topics from dolls to country singer Ferlin Husky to the numinous.

It was these two juicy roles for senior actresses that drew director Ken Rus Schmoll to John. “These are two roles for actresses in their seventies that are complex, far from the stereotypical ‘old ladies’ that permeate popular culture,” he says. “Old age, though not necessarily a hallowed state of being, is where wisdom fructifies.”

John runs through April 23 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about the creation of John and the numinous? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

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