Women of the Night

Women of the Night TALKING WITH CHERRY JONES AND MARSHA MASON

TALKING WITH CHERRY JONES AND MARSHA MASON

Cherry Jones, reared in Paris, TN, came up the ranks of regional and not for-profit theatre to win a featured Tony nomination for Our Country's Good and, last season, the Best Actress Tony for her portrayal of shy, dull Catherine Sloper, who proved to be adept at romantic revenge, in The Heiress.

Marsha Mason, reared in St. Louis, acted at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre and in soaps before winning her first of four Academy Award nominations for her portrayal of a prostitute in her third film, Cinderella Liberty, debuting on Broadway in Neil Simon's The Good Doctor, marrying the playwright, and winning a second Oscar nomination for The Goodbye Girl, a film he wrote for her.

In the Roundabout Theatre's revival of Tennessee Williams's 1961 The Night of the Iguana (running through May 12, 1996), Jones re creates the role of Hanna Jelkes, which she originated to raves (and a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actress) two years ago at Chicago's Goodman. Mason, whose career went into a slump after her divorce from Simon, is taking time off from her 200-acre farm and stockcar racing to return to Broadway as Maxine Faulk.

Mason, a tiny but attractive dynamo who belies her years, after considering homes in Paris and the Carolinas, settled in New Mexico, where she farms medicinal herbs and is building a home. Jones, who describes herself as "this odd lump of a girl with this big face and this big body," lives in a high-tech studio in the West Village. It was here, during rehearsals, the two met to get acquainted. Maxine played in the original by a tortured Bette Davis, soon replaced by Shelley Winters is the mid-40ish, recently widowed proprietor of a rundown Mexico beach hotel in 1940. Hannah (originated by Margaret Leighton in a memorable performance) is a world-weary, broke but proud spinster painter "pushing 40" with her 97-year-old grandfather, billed as the world's oldest poet. The protagonist is a womanizing, defrocked minister and sometime tour guide named Shannon (William Petersen in Roundabout's production).

The women's roles are as distinctly different as the actresses. Finding Hannah and Maxine was a quest, but drawing from experiences and their personalities helped.

"I felt Hannah was so far beyond me," Jones explained. "I didn't know how to find her greatness as a human being. How do you play her and not appear to be faking it? When acting is fraudulent onstage, you want to slink away under a rock."

Jones "worked externally" to get Hannah right. "I concentrated on her New England accent, straight posture and her crisp coolness combined with a wry humor. I tried to build her a home and hoped that she'd start to inhabit it."

Gradually the speeches started to have a power and simplicity "without my having to control them. I felt her hand in mine, and the skin started to feel like hers."

Williams described Maxine as "swarthy, lusty." Did Mason find that in her background?

"Yeah!" she replies. "Absolutely!"

"Oh, yeah!" says Jones, as the women share a hearty laugh.

"In the roles I've played," said Mason, "there was much to draw on to create Maxine. She's a survivor. For almost four years, I didn't work. Maybe it was karma. Or my hitting 45. The divorce from Neil may have affected some of it.

"There were those who thought I was only good because of Neil. They forgot what I'd done before our marriage. That was pure romance a whirlwind courtship of three weeks when I was cast in The Good Doctor before we tied the knot. Everyone fell in love with the marriage, which Neil glorified in Chapter Two. People were upset when, after ten years, we split. Like Maxine, I did the best I could. When decent work came along, I took it. I survived."

Feeling depressed and "used up" in Los Angeles, Mason relocated to New York to revive her career and direct. A year later, she met with director Robert Falls, and only months later;"quite by accident as some of my best roles have come";he cast her for the Roundabout run.
"When I found out I'd be playing opposite Cherry and William Petersen," said Mason, "I knew there'd be hot chemistry. And there has been." But the prospect of joining an ensemble where nine of the 14 actors had done the play in Chicago was daunting.

"Coming in blind can be difficult," said Jones, "but Marsha's been concentrated throughout and so quick to laugh when things don't go as planned."

"Bob had mounted this successful production in Chicago," Mason noted, "but was open to what I might bring. It was exciting."

In the play Maxine notes she isn't a weak person. Hannah replies, "Your strength is awe-inspiring." In rehearsal after doing that scene, the actresses still not fully acquainted, had a moment of revealing deja vu.

"Marsha gave me a much-needed hug," says Jones, "and we began squealing with laughter. I said, 'You're a very strong woman!' She said, 'It's the upper-body strength I developed racing cars without power steering.'

" 'You race cars?' I blurted. 'Uh-huh,' she replied. I wanted to know her top speed. She told me in excess of 200 miles an hour. I said, 'Marsha, I just got a tremendous insight into you.' In a review of one of Marsha's plays, Walter Kerr talked about her 'lower lascivious lip.' Well, Marsha looked at me with that lower lascivious lip and went, 'Shhhhh!' "

Jones suddenly gets up. After a moment, Mason cracks up at the sight of her atop a furnished platform area. She has the top of the window down and is blowing smoke out.

"Can't you smoke in your house?" Mason asks.

"We smoke out the window, especially with that new couch," replies Jones, whose companion, architect Mary O'Connor, recently carried out the renovation of their digs. [She refers to the sensationally-shaped red sofa done in a new Nova Suede fabric where Mason sits.]

For a 35-year-old play, they feel Iguana is very present. "It's about healing, forgiveness, morality, sex and sensual spiritual essences," says Mason.

"The characters are multi-layered," adds Jones, "and the themes so universal anyone can connect with what Williams is saying. Also, it's victimless. That's extraordinary for him!"

Falls restored speeches Williams cut to placate Davis. "He embraced it all," reported Jones, "and orchestrated it like a musician. Tennessee created wonderful moods between the volcanic explosions, but abruptly broke them. Bob found a way to keep the tremulous suspension hanging. Now the play builds on itself in a way I know Tennessee would be pleased with."

"Oh," said Mason, "he's having the best time up there."

-- By Ellis Nassour