After a reading of Michael Cristofer's Amazing Grace at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, Marsha Mason told the playwright, "I'll go anywhere, do anything, to support this." He took her for her word, which led to critical acclaim for both in the 1995 premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. The play won the 1995-1996 American Theater Critics Association Outstanding New Play Award and is making its long-awaited bow Off-Broadway under the auspices of the Blue Light Theater Company at Theatre Four (through April 19).
Cristofer's play, about the life of condemned murderer Selena Goodall, could have been ripped from recent headlines. Goodall is the fictional persona of Velma Barfield, a North Carolina woman convicted of slowly poisoning to death four in her care under the delusion they'd be more dependent on her. Cristofer was inspired after a "60 Minutes" interview Diane Sawyer did with Barfield, who was executed in 1984. He was fascinated by Barfield's "ordinariness and that she could have been anyone's grandmother."
"In Pittsburgh we didn't have headlines about women on death row, or the protests surrounding Karla Faye Tucker [a convicted Texas murderer executed in February]," said Mason. "They make the social context of the play all the more fascinating. Selena is an amalgamation of facets inspired by the [capital punishment] issue. Michael doesn't want to be political. Amazing Grace is about Selena's redemption and finding meaning for her life, and the confusion of values in our culture."
Mason, a four-time Academy Award Best Actress nominee, was drawn to the writing and Selena's spiritual awakening. "Michael, as we know from The Shadow Box [Pulitzer Prize for Drama and 1977 Tony Award for Best Play], is a compelling writer. He's also an excellent screenwriter. I had to be supportive because he wanted to write for the theatre again when so many good writers are writing exclusively for television and film. Financially, they can't afford to write for theatre anymore because the venues are getting smaller and smaller.
"Amazing Grace," says Mason, "gives me the opportunity to exercise as an actor in a way most material in film and television doesn't."
Television hasn't been bad to Mason. After reestablishing herself in the theatre in Roundabout's 1996 revival of Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana (opposite Cherry Jones), she won critical plaudits "and was sort of put back on the map," playing John Mahoney's brassy girlfriend Sherry on NBC's top-rated "Frasier."
Unlike Sherry, says Mason, "Selena's story is not a light trip down memory lane. It's heavy, but uplifting. It's not bleak, dark and nihilistic. And there's some comedy. The stage is practically bare, a kind of a lean and mean staging. There're difficult moments to grasp, but I dug into my shadow side.
"The great thing about acting," Mason concludes, "is that, in an appropriate environment, you're able to explore aspects of your persona that otherwise might land you behind bars. And without going to the chair!" -- By Ellis Nassour