I talked with the actress Marsha Mason in a conference room at the administrative offices of the Shakespeare Theatre Company on Capitol Hill. On the wall were framed black and white photographs of the likes of Stacy Keach and the late Dixie Carter, both of whom had graced STC productions over the years.
Other actors, known for their movie or television work to the general public, have worked here — Kelly McGillis, Elizabeth Ashley, Hal Holbrook and Avery Brooke, among many — and now Mason, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar four times, joins what’s kind of a pantheon here. She will be portraying the Countess Rousillon in Michael Kahn’s production of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” which opens the STC season beginning Sept. 7 and running through Oct. 24.
“It’s not a huge part, but it’s a significant one,” Mason said. “Shakespeare wrote a beautiful part for an older woman here, she’s wise, open, a kind of role model for the heroine, Helena.”
“All’s Well” is considered one of Shakespeare’s trickier plays, chronicling a difficult romance between Helena , a radiant, smart, brave heroine who’s way too good for the swain she’s smitten with, the doltish but hunky aristocrat Bertrand. Mason herself is not intimidated.
“I know it’s got that reputation for being ‘difficult,’ but I think Michael has done a terrific job of making the play clear to us today,” she said.
She’s obviously glad to be here, to be working. The issue of women’s roles in movies, television and theater is important to her, which is not surprising given the lasting resonance of her performances, especially the harried, appealing and struggling actress in “The Goodbye Girl” opposite Richard Dreyfuss. Her professional world has changed drastically since she first set out and made her mark in it, shining at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
“Broadway is going through a very alarming phase right now,” she said. “There’s this emphasis on getting movie stars into straight plays, the idea that people won’t come without that. And that may be true — look at what happened to the revival of “‘Brighton Beach Memoirs.’”
Neil Simon’s Tony-winning play has memories and meaning for Mason. She was, after all, married to Simon for a number of years in the 1970s and divorced (amicably) in 1981. “I think everyone in the business was shocked when that closed so quickly and couldn’t be sustained. It said something about theater and Broadway, that’s for sure.”
Mason did some of her best work for Simon, especially “The Goodbye Girl,” which Simon wrote for her, along with “Chapter Two.”
“The scripts Neil wrote, they were gifts, I look at them that way,” she said. “They were certainly gifts for an actress, wonderful parts. She received Oscar nominations for them, and for “Cinderella Liberty” and “Only When I Laugh.”
With “Goodbye Girl” and with “Cinderella Liberty” she took on the mantle of a budding movie star. “I suppose that’s what was happening,” she said. “But I never really thought of myself that way. That’s Hollywood think, it’s not me. I’m an actress, always have been.”
Still, she had a movie star’s appeal: an oval, open face, dark hair, a beauty that managed to have the requisite mystery so that you wouldn’t forget her soon. The beauty and the face are still there, accessible and warm, a little more lived in, but undeniably appealing.
“The business changed,” she said. “I think every woman in Hollywood when she gets older finds the parts beginning to dry up, except maybe Meryl Streep, she can do anything. That’s what happened to me. And it’s only gotten worse, because the powers that be make movies for teenaged boys.”
In 2001, a troubled Mason decided on a major change — she bought a 250-acre farm in New Mexico, created a business, became a biodynamic farmer, while still acting in theater (“Hecuba” in Chicago), parts on television (she had a recurring role in “Frasier”) and movies (a wonderful bit as the gritty Clint Eastwood’s ex in “Heartbreak Ridge”). She wrote a book, she directed, she taught.
“I’ve done a lot of things and been a lot of things,” she said. “But I think it was time to move back east.” She returned to the theater, to New York, where she scored a success recently in a revival of “I Never Sang for My Father.”
“Working in theater is a nurturing, powerful experience,” she said. “I love being here, being part of the process. Most actors revel in the rehearsal process, it’s when you’re really connecting, really alive.”
She stays in the game and on the stage. There’s no saying goodbye for the Goodbye Girl.