Marsha Mason holds many titles: award-winning actress of stage and film, stage and television director, race-car driver, innovative farmer, and entrepreneur. Those many titles do not seem to go together, but they begin to describe as well as define her. Currently she is focusing on being a director. As I talked with her recently, she just had completed casting and was beginning rehearsals for the romantic comedy “Chapter Two” by Neil Simon, opening Thursday, May 22, at Bucks County Playhouse.
It must seem like flipping the pages back in the “book” in which she is a principal character. You see: “Chapter Two” was written by Simon, her then-husband, and is based on the love story that unfolded between them. His wife had recently died, and Marsha came onto the scene when she auditioned for the Broadway production of Simon’s “The Good Doctor.” She got the role, and their romance began.
Mason makes it clear to me, “’Chapter Two’ is loosely based on my initial relationship with Neil.” Vocally, she underlines “loosely.” To revisit that time may be strange, but, she says, “to direct it is very exciting, and I enjoy the warmth and humor of the love story. It’s about loss and finding happiness again and taking a chance and fighting for what you want. I’m looking forward to working on this with actors. It’s really about them, not me.”
Publicity material from the theater says the play asks “Can you start a second chapter when you can’t let go of the first?” In real life the two could as they were married for 10 years. Mason did not play the role when the play opened on Broadway, but did perform the lead in the movie version. She received her third Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her performance. She was nominated yet again for another Simon-written film, “Only When I Laugh.” Earlier nods were for “The Goodbye Girl” — also by Simon — and “Cinderella Liberty,” for which she won the Golden Globe Award as Best Actress.
Chapter one for Mason is set in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. Mason, born in 1942, and a younger sister grew up there. Their father was a printer; their mother, a housewife. They lived in a modest neighborhood and didn’t have the happiest home life. Like so many people in show business, she said a few words on a stage as a little girl, and that was “it” for her. Performing in high school plays led to the obvious career choice, and she studied speech and drama at Webster University in St. Louis.
“One of the best things about that school,” she says, “was that they gave me a very full, well rounded experience in theater arts. So I learned the basics of directing early on when I was still there as well as acting and stage craft and speech and that sort of thing.” This makes it easier for her to slip into the role of director, a discipline that began to bloom at Burt Reynolds’ theater in Florida in 1983. However, she did not make her New York City debut as a director until 2003 with the off Broadway play “Juno’s Swan’s,” starring Betty Buckley.
After college, Mason was off to New York City to build a career as an actress. Her talent was recognized and resulted in some shows off-Broadway. But it was not until 1968 that she got her first Broadway job as a replacement in the hit comedy “Cactus Flower,” playing a character called Botticelli’s Springtime. Despite her extensive television and stage credits in New York and in Los Angeles, many of us remember her delightfully supernatural turn on the soap opera “Dark Shadows” as well as on the more down-to-earth soap “Love of Life.” During the 1997-’98 television season she received an Emmy nomination for her recurring role on “Frazier.”
Regionally, Mason was on stage last summer at the Bucks County Playhouse in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” And Princeton audiences saw her on stage in 2003 Charles Mee’s “Wintertime.” About this play, a co-production of the McCarter Theater and the Second Stage in New York, Mason assures me that when it moved to New York, the cast did not, as they had in Princeton, “moon” the audience in a climactic scene that will not be forgotten by those who were there.
Somewhere in here, Mason began another chapter, as a race-car driver. This sounds improbable, but she did have a friend in high school who had some interest in racing. Like anything she did, she did it “full out.” She raced a Mazda RX-3 in Sports Car Club of America events and says, “During my seven years racing, I made the runoff every time. I always came in the top three or four in my division.”
She writes in her autobiography that after her divorce from Simon in 1983, “I was a whirling dervish dancing out of control.” Perhaps a clue to what helped her through this time is that her biography is dedicated to Muktananda and Guramya, gurus of the Siddha Yoga path of meditation.
Another chapter: she moves to New Mexico and buys raw land. As we talk, she says, “I didn’t intend to become a farmer, but I became one and an entrepreneur and businesswoman with a product line.” Her early theater training came into play again. “When I was building the buildings for the farm, I sort of thought of it as preproduction, and I always looked at things from that point of view — always interested in stage pictures and directorial concepts.”
She was still racing, but a couple of years into farming she found, “I had to stop once I started really growing things.” She grew certified organic products, many as support systems for upper respiratory troubles. Also using herbs on the farm, she developed a bath and body line of products called Resting in the River. They are still available, but others are growing the herbs.
Just this last January, she sold the farm. “I’m in a transition phase,” she says. “I have to make my way and see where I’m going to land — I don’t even know what I’d like for it to be. I have a lot on my plate, but I always look forward to doing creative and exciting things.” Certainly, there will be more acting and directing. “I like it all. One hopes to constantly grow and keep oneself open for whatever the universe may present.”
Considering her history, the “Next Chapter” could be almost anything.
Act Two, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, 3 p.m., Thursdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Fridays, 8 p.m. (opening on Friday, May 23, at 7 p.m.), Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Thursday, May 22, through Sunday, June 15. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.