Donald Margulies Bounces Back

Donald Margulies Bounces Back Marsha Mason, the four-time Oscar nominee, is teaming up with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer for the world premiere of his new drama, "Amazing Grace," at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. Echoing a number of recent trials, the play is a series of flashbacks taking place on the day that condemned murderer Selena Goodall awaits her executioner.

Marsha Mason, the four-time Oscar nominee, is teaming up with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer for the world premiere of his new drama, "Amazing Grace," at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. Echoing a number of recent trials, the play is a series of flashbacks taking place on the day that condemned murderer Selena Goodall awaits her executioner.

"The role is extremely complex and very rich in its emotional life," says Mason of Selena, whom Cristofer based, in part, on Velma Barfield, who was the last woman to be executed in the United States in North Carolina in the eighties. "The play is about redemption and love of every kind, and her transformation is of the sort that leads her to better understand her life and destiny."

For those moviegoers who know Mason largely as a comedic actress, a role of this dramatic range might seem as something of a departure. But the actress, who now makes her home in Santa Fe, acted a great deal with San Francisco''s ACT early in her career and has appeared at the Old Globe in San Diego and at Los Angeles''s Theatre Works where she is a member.

Mason hopes that the play can shed some light on some controversial social issues of the day. "The capital punishment argument really comes down to, ŒCould you personally pull the switch?'' " says Mason. Could she? "No."

The actress adds that teaching anyone anything about capital punishment, however, is not the point of "Amazing Grace." "You go to the theatre to be moved, to be inspired, to be jarred, to be intrigued," she says. "If we do our job right, then the audience for this play will be. That''s the best any actor can hope for." DONALD MARGULIES

SEES THE BIGGER "PICTURE"

How does a playwright come back from defeat? He finds solace, refuge and new challenges in regional theatre, so says Donald Margulies whose "What''s Wrong with This Picture?" flopped on Broadway last season. "I was feeling bruised and battered and very shaky," says the young playwright who blazed onto the scene with his Off-Broadway hit, "Sight Unseen." "There''s just something caring and nurturing about regional theatre."

Luckily for Margulies, his recovery process from the debacle of Picture was immeasurably helped by the fact that the Humana Festival of Louisville had earlier commissioned Margulies to write a play. The result, a one-act, titled "July 7th, 1994," helped him to get back into the saddle when it was presented at the festival last spring, directed by Lisa Peterson. The Mark Taper Forum has now commissioned a companion piece to the work and hopes to present it early next year.

"The Louisville experience was a wonderful tonic after what happened on Broadway," says Margulies. "It was great to work again on a new piece with a very dedicated company far away from the distortions of New York. I came out of it extremely revivified."

The South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, which had commissioned "Sight Unseen," may likely present his newest work, "Collected Stories," about a mentor-protégé literary relationship, in a workshop this December. Now with "The Model Apartment" having opened at New York''s Primary Stages Off-Broadway in October, Margulies is beginning to feel alive again. "There are just more opportunities in regional theatre," he adds. "The theatre is not just about New York and hasn''t been for a long time."

-- By Patrick Pacheco