What Linda Gehringer has accomplished the past decade isn't unthinkable, but it's certainly remarkable. Though living in the backwater (by Hollywood terms) of Laguna Beach since 1997, Gehringer has landed 21 feature film and television roles.
Sure, guest appearances and one-shots dominate her résumé (her biggest role to date is probably playing Jack Nicholson's publisher in As Good as it Gets), but anyone getting so much work while living so far from the belly of the entertainment beast is impressive.
But it's live theater that sustains her acting soul. And when she takes the stage Friday as Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Pulitzer-winning play about paranoia, politics and pedophilia in the Catholic Church, Gehringer will add one more feather to her already impressive South Coast Rep plumage. Since she made her SCR debut in 1997, there has been only one season when she hasn't contributed a memorable performance for the theater.
But rather than write a standard feature about Gehringer, saddled with all the requisite biographical stuff (Detroit native, 53, married, two grown stepchildren, grandniece of baseball Hall-of-Famer Charlie Gehringer), let's have Gehringer herself talk about some of her greatest SCR performances:
Director Dan Sullivan was adamant that the much-hyped sexual tension between Gehringer's Gertrude and her son Hamlet (Hamish Linklater) not be overt. "One day he was questioned about why the physicality between myself and Hamish was so tame. And he said we didn't have to play it, because it was already in the text. Then he turned to me and asked, 'Linda, isn't there a moment every night when Hamish is holding you and thinks you're just the right size?' And it was so funny, but true. I'd played Gertrude 20 years before and both times there was this intimacy between her and Hamlet that surfaced. It's just there."
The Retreat from Moscow, 2004
(OC Weekly theater award for best female performance.) "When I first read the script, I started absolutely sobbing. I realized immediately that no matter how fierce that woman sounded, there was more to her than cruelty. She should have had a bigger life instead of dealing with the frustration and disappointment of having to work after her husband was injured and no longer able to. I really felt plugged into the heart of this fascinating woman. But that's what you have to do with characters who come off seeming so wicked: You have to get inside them and truly [empathize] with their choices."
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, 2003
"The cruelty of the mother [she played] was probably more difficult than my character in Moscow, because it was directed at a child, even if it stemmed from wanting to save her daughter. But like [playwright] Rolin Jones said, just because characters act a certain way in a play, doesn't mean every day of their lives looked like that. You're seeing them at their worst moments. And that's what you have to remember: There's more to this person than what you're portraying."
But Not for Me, 1998
"What was so interesting about that character [Helen Gahagan Douglas, the California senatorial candidate on the receiving end of Richard Nixon's first smear campaign in 1950] is that playwright Keith Reddin chose to take her on a completely imagined journey. She wasn't a terribly emotional person in real life, but she just exploded all over the stage in that play. It was a great journey, but as difficult as anything I've ever done, because she went from A to Z in 45 minutes and then back again. It was very hard getting to that place every night."
Good as New, 1997
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(OC Weekly theater award for best female performance.) Gehringer's character, who was riding home from a fresh facelift, spent the first act with her features completely bandaged. "I was 43 at the time, and didn't really identify with a line my character tells her daughter about her not knowing what it's like to walk into a room and always turn heads and then suddenly they no longer turn. I understood it, since at any age there are issues of attractiveness. But I didn't relate. But now that I'm 53, I really get it. Ever since I turned 50, I've felt the realization that, gosh, I'm getting older.
"But I'll still never get a facelift. Shortly before my mother died, she was rolled into surgery and turned to me and said 'Do you believe that some people do this for cosmetic reasons?' I always remembered that when, in the play, my daughter is describing the skin in facelifts being pulled down over your face like a sheet stretched over a bed. So when I look in the mirror these days and see another wrinkle, I say, 'OK. I can live with that.'"
Doubt at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Opens Fri. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.. Through Nov. 18. $28-$62.