Legendary actress Marsha Mason is a firm believer in regional theater. She enjoys performing, as well as directing, within smaller venues.
Mason especially appreciates the Arizona Theatre Company, for whom she will direct Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, which opens the 2017-2018 season. The show runs in Tucson from September 9 to September 30, and in Phoenix October 5 to October 22. This is an encore appearance for Mason, who last year helmed An Act of God.
“(ATC artistic director emeritus) David Ira Goldstein asked if I wanted to come back,” she says. “It was such a positive experience, that he suggested I do Chapter Two. I had directed it once before at (Pennsylvania’s) Bucks County Playhouse. I thought it would be fun to do it for the audiences in Arizona.
“The Arizona Theatre Company’s facilities are beautiful, and the staff is just stellar. I had such a positive experience that there was no reason not to come.”
Neil Simon’s Chapter Two is a semi-autobiographical comedy about a recently widowed writer, George Schneider, who is introduced by his press-agent brother to soap opera actress Jennie Malone. The two have a whirlwind romance in the play, which was written as a tribute to Mason, Simon’s second wife. Mason was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for playing the lead role in the 1979 film version of Chapter Two.
“I love the show and I know it well,” she says. “We’ve brought it up to contemporary times. It feels like it moves along. In the 1970s, there was a slower rhythm to life, in general. We’ve designed the set in such a way so the scenes blend in with each other. It moves the play along very well.”
The 75-year-old Mason admits there are challenges to directing, which she began in the 1980s at New York’s Second Stage Theater.
“I like new challenges, though,” she says. “This has been wonderful. I started at Second Stage and then I went on to direct at a couple of other places as well.”
Mason, who stars in the ABC sitcom The Middle, prefers variety in her career. She bought a farm in New Mexico and grew certified organic herbs. Mason also traveled to London for nine months to perform.
“I’ve been all over the place,” she says. “It’s wonderful to get back to it. I’ll always be grateful to the Bucks County Playhouse. They gave me the opportunity to direct there several times. I’ve performed there, too. Now, I’ve been doing more work out of town and now this is my second time in Arizona.”
Arizona has been good to Mason, as she has enjoyed the food and sights of Tucson and the Valley. “First of all, the people there are very, very supportive and friendly,” she says. “The food is wonderful. I’ve spent the majority of my time in Tucson because that’s where we rehearsed and opened the show.
“I came back to mount it in Phoenix and the Phoenix audience was just terrific. I enjoyed both cities very much and enjoyed the museums, too.”
Whenever aspiring thespians ask Mason for advice, she has a simple answer: Be prepared and indulge in regional theater.
“You never know when a lucky break is going to come along,” Mason says. “You don’t know where it’s going to be or what.
“Young people should work as much as they can, and go where the work is. They should do everything they possibly can—study, visit museums, go to operas and, if you can afford it, go to the theater. Immerse yourself in the world you want to be a part of.”
Most important, she says, is supporting regional theater.
“The audiences are so terrific,” Mason explains. “The Arizona Theatre Company is so wonderful. Based on my experiences last year, and this experience, too, it’s a first-rate professional theater. The staff is great and responsive and responsible. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Avenue, Tucson, 520.622.2823, arizonatheatre.org, various times September 9 to September 30, $25-$50.
The Herberger Theatre Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix, 602.256.6995, arizonatheatre.org, various times October 5 to October 22, $25-$50.