The Role of a Lifetime: Georgia Engel in Annie Baker's John

By Elspeth Sweatman

Imagine having your first lead role come your way at the age of 68. That is what happened to Georgia Engel (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) after she played a small role in an adaptation of Uncle Vanya by contemporary American playwright Annie Baker.

Georgia Engel (Mertis) in A.C.T.'s 2017 production
of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
“On closing night, she came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘I’m gonna write a play for you,’” said Engel in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner. That play is John, which is currently running at The Strand Theater through April 23.

In John, Engel plays Mertis, the eccentric proprietor of a Gettysburg bed and breakfast who can best be described as a “cross between Betty White and Yoda.” Behind her sugary voice and love of tchotchkes lies an incredible intellectual curiosity. She loves H. P. Lovecraft and romantic comedies equally. She has memorized dozens of collective nouns for birds: a flock of ducks, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks.

“Annie has an incredible ear for humanity,” says Engel in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “The most profound part of what she does it give you a little nonjudgmental look at how funny we human beings are and how we struggle to find happiness.”

It is Baker’s ability to create such complex characters that has brought Engel back to this bed and breakfast again and again. Engel first played Mertis in John’s premiere at Signature Theatre Company in 2015. And after John’s run at A.C.T. ends in April, Engel is flying off to play the role again at London’s Royal National Theatre in 2018.

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Annie Baker and Mertis's eclectic interests? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.  

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