This was not exactly where she planned to spend nearly two decades of her life, in a place where the howl of coyotes had her so petrified that, on her first night in New Mexico, she slept with a shovel next to her bed. “I thought, ‘Oh Marsha, what . . . do you think you’re doing?’ ” she reflected one day before a rehearsal for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “All’s Well that Ends Well,” a reprisal of the 2010 production that STC is bringing back Aug. 23 for their annual Free for All.
In 1993, the twice-divorced Mason (her second husband, Neil Simon, wrote three of the four films that garnered her Academy Award nominations) needed a change. “My identity had been wrapped up, really, in only being an actress,” Mason said.
As she aged, “work began not to come as quickly as it used to. I experienced a certain amount of identity crisis.” Mason is 70, though you wouldn’t guess it to see her; she doesn’t look much older than your average Desperate Housewife.
It was her friend Shirley MacLaine who suggested the move. “She’s on the mountain behind me,” Mason said. “You should see her, coming down the hill for Thanksgiving dinner, in a golf cart. It’s really a sight.”
Mason visited the land and decided to make the move. “I thought it was important to just throw the pieces of my life up in the air and see what kind of pattern would come down.”
Though she never stopped working entirely — she mostly did television during that time, nabbing an Emmy nomination for her stint on “Fraiser” and, more recently, appearing on “Army Wives” and “The Middle” — acting stayed on her back burner. Now the St. Louis native is abandoning farm life, citing a desire to “downsize and simplify.” (The only people who think a pastoral life is actually simple are people who have never lived or worked on a farm.) She is returning back East to focus on theater.
“I’m ready,” Mason said. “I’m more than ready. I’m sort of champing at the bit.”
She said that this time around with “All’s Well” is easier than the last. Before the 2010 production, Mason hadn’t done Shakespeare in almost 30 years. “I was terrified for the first four weeks of rehearsal.” The Free for All “is such a grace note,” she said. “I’m enjoying it, I think, in an odd way, for the first time. Because before, on the stage with it, I was too petrified to really enjoy it.”
Acting has always been that way for Mason, a kind of thrill-and-fear cocktail. “I was always a mixture of excitement and anxiety.”
Reflecting on her career, Mason is proud but matter of fact. For someone who found her home in drama, she’s a strikingly undramatic person, a mom who sums up her acting achievements by saying, “I’m pretty pleased with the work that I’ve done. I think I did a good job.”
She doesn’t dwell much on missed opportunities, though she does remember them. In a notable could-have-been turn, Mason was offered the role of “Norma Rae” but had to turn it down to be with her family. Sally Field landed it instead and went on to win the Academy Award.
“Acting is not the best profession,” Mason said. “I wouldn’t really recommend it to anybody. I’m serious. When young people ask me I say, ‘Don’t go into it.’ Because the truth of the matter is, it is very, very hard.”
Not to say there aren’t any perks. For instance: You could be on a plane to Los Angeles with Paul Newman, and you could mention a long-held fascination with car racing. And Newman, World’s Handsomest Human, could invite you to join him on the racetrack. “I ended up traveling with the team whenever I could for about a year,” Mason said.
Mason is ending up where she started out, fulfilling her teenage ambition of being “a very good working actress in New York City,” where she plans to live when the farm has been sold. In the meantime, she hopes the Free for All will attract Shakespeare rookies who will find “All’s Well” to be a gateway drug for more theater.
The play “has all those elements, mistaken identity and letters and a whole kind of fantastical aspect to it,” she said. “And it’s also about a contemporary relationship that I think a lot of young people can relate to.”
Mason wouldn’t have guessed it all those years ago, but it turned out that farm life was just what she needed to become the actress she wanted to be. “Throwing myself into that world . . . I think it’s made me a better person, and a better actress, actually. Because nature teaches you patience.” And perspective. “I really feel that my work is my work, it’s not my identity. That I’m a bigger person than just my work,” she said. “And I feel really good about that growth and what I’ve been through.”
All’s Well That Ends Well
Aug. 23-Sept. 5, 610 F Street NW, www.shakespearetheatre.org, 202-547-1122