Type Michael Learned's name into any Internet search engine, and you'll find yourself linked to several hundred articles and dozens of Web sites devoted to The Waltons -- and almost nothing about her notable stage career. Like a lot of former television stars, Learned's theater credentials have been eclipsed by a single TV role; in this case, her eight-year stint as Olivia Walton, doyenne of the ultimate prime-time family. Despite a string of big league stage successes, for most folks this well-regarded theater actress will always be sepia-tinted Ma Walton.
And, also like a lot of lucky actors, Learned is loath to gripe about her TV success. "I feel very grateful, actually," she told me last week in a telephone interview. "I meet a lot of very nice people who liked [Olivia Walton], so they're predisposed to like me."
Shakespeare Sedona is banking as much on our affection for Michael Learned as it is her estimable talents. The actress is headlining the four-year-old company's production of All's Well That Ends Well, now playing in rep with Ken Love's interpretation of Othello. There's nothing new about a theater company enticing theatergoers (or, more specifically, non-theatergoers) into a playhouse with a big-name television star. But Michael Learned doing Shakespeare is not at all like John Schuck doing Annie. Learned is no TV has-been, slumming in a bus-and-truck revival. She's a respected stage actor whose successes include the lead in Broadway's The Sisters Rosensweig andEdward Albee's Three Tall Women and, most recently, a long run in Gore Vidal's The Best Man, for which she received an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.
None of which matters to Phoenicians, many more of whom might make the trek to Sedona to see what Mrs. Walton is up to these days if what she was up to was, say, Maria in The Sound of Music. But in a backwater like ours, it's doubtful that even a star of Learned's caliber is going to convince sports fans and TV Land aficionados to bet on the Bard. Shakespeare is about acting, after all, and not about having been famous on television.
The company's artistic director, Jared Sakren, has a theory about why the uninitiated tend to avoid Old Will. "People have certain assumptions about Shakespeare, probably because of some bad high school production that they found really boring," he says. "But it's a completely enlightening and entertaining experience when you see Shakespeare performed by people who understand the language."
Learned is among those people. She served an apprenticeship with the Stratford, Connecticut, Shakespeare Festival early in her career, but she laughs when I ask her if she ever played Helena, the pretty heroine of All's Well, back then. "No, I was usually a villager," she says. "A robust flower girl, a peasant." Learned fared better post-Stratford, with acclaimed leads in The Importance of Being Earnest and Tartuffe, and off-Broadway productions of The Three Sisters and A God Slept Here.
"I hadn't played Shakespeare in 25 years, but it's like riding a bike. I really wanted to get my feet wet with Shakespeare again, and I felt safe doing it with [director] Jesse Burger and with Jared, who was at the American Conservatory Theater, my alma mater."
Her next role is somewhat less taxing, and one that we'd expect to find a former TV star playing: the Jewish mother in a dinner theater production of Neil Simon's Social Security. In Kansas City.
"I've never played a dinner theater before," she confides, somewhat sheepishly. "But they were offering wonderful money, which is nice. I usually end up going in the hole when I do theater."
Still, she prefers the stage to the small screen, where opportunities to stretch are harder to come by. If you keep after her, she'll admit as much. "Yes, having been Mrs. Walton limited me as far as film and television work, because people don't want to see you do something else. But I understand that way of thinking. I mean, Mary Tyler Moore is a wonderful actor, but she'll always be Mary Richards, and that's who I want to see when I see her."
Learned shifts quickly back to being grateful for her television stardom, which has netted her four Best Actress Emmys, three of them for The Waltons. "We have a Waltons fan club, very ardent and dear," she says, without a trace of sarcasm. "I recently told them that I occasionally use foul language, and they love me anyway."
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