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Marsha, Marsha, Marsha! St. Louis native Marsha Mason headlines Insight Theatre's fundraiser 

Marsha Mason arrives for Impressionism's opening night on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 24, 2009.

Jay Brady/Everett Collection

Marsha Mason arrives for Impressionism's opening night on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 24, 2009.

Marsha Mason, actress turned racecar driver turned entrepreneur, concedes to having a poor sense of direction. "Thank God a racetrack comes full circle," she quips in her best-selling 2000 memoir, Journey: A Personal Odyssey. Every once in a long while, the track of Mason's life returns her to St. Louis, where she was born and reared, and from which she fled (nothing personal) to become a professional actress in New York soon after she graduated from Webster College in 1964. In three weeks Mason will return to another of her alma maters, Nerinx Hall, as the honoree of a June 9 luncheon to benefit Insight Theatre Company. That day's festivities will include a matinee performance of Chapter Two, Neil Simon's 1977 comedy whose impetus was his hasty marriage to Mason, as well as a question-and-answer session in which she'll discuss her life and career.

The Marsha Mason story neatly breaks down into three acts: Pre-Neil Simon, The Simon Years and Life After Neil.

Pre-Neil Simon. Born here in 1942, Mason grew up on Clarence Avenue in north St. Louis. When the family moved to Crestwood, she began to feel isolated. ("I lost my friends. I lost my freedom to get around and had to be driven everywhere.") Then at age thirteen, she saw Rebel Without a Cause at a neighborhood movie theater. The film would change her life. "That movie is meant for me," she would recall in an evocative essay written four decades later for the American Film Institute. "I feel like a rebel without a cause, but I couldn't put my adolescent feelings into words until that moment. My heart thumps, and an ache constricts my throat, and I sit transfixed and hardly breathing.... I am James Dean. I have met myself. Someone who is just like me."

The film saddened her because as a lonely teenager she had no friendships like the one shared onscreen by Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Although she yearned to experience their love and pain, she soon realized that what she really desires is to act those emotions. Not necessarily on the screen; the stage would become her first passion. But wherever she acts, from the outset her goal is constant: to be "as good and truthful as James Dean."

Seven years later, with a diploma from Webster College in one hand and a $1,000 check in the other (runner-up in a Junior Miss pageant), Mason moved to New York. She made her Broadway debut in a featured role in the Abe Burrows comedy Cactus Flower and found weightier work off-Broadway: Norman Mailer's adaption of his novel The Deer Park, then an evening of one-acts by Israel Horovitz. The five-actor cast also included then-unknowns Al Pacino and John Cazale. When Mason left the play, she was replaced by another newcomer, Jill Clayburgh.

Her film debut in 1966 was less auspicious. Hot Rod Hullaballoo is not a movie waiting to be rediscovered. On the other hand, Mason was the only cast member to go on to receive four Academy Award nominations. She hit pay dirt in 1973 with Paul Mazursky's Blume in Love and, later that same year, in Cinderella Liberty, where her unsparing portrayal of a two-bit hooker earned her the first of those four Oscar nods. That same eventful year, Mason was cast in Neil Simon's new Broadway play The Good Doctor. On the first day of rehearsals, she met Simon. Three weeks later they were married.

The Simon Years began inconspicuously. Mason put her career on pause for three years to be a full-time wife and stepmother. "For that alone," Simon wrote in his 1999 memoir The Play Goes On, "she has my love and respect forever." Late one afternoon in 1977, Mason was to meet her husband at the Broadway theater where he was casting Chapter Two, his chronicle of the implicit perils in a too-sudden marriage. The casting session ran long, so Mason sat off to the side, watched the auditions and made her own notes as to which actors she (hypothetically) would cast. Afterward, just for fun, Simon and Mason compared their lists, which were the same. With a sense of discovery in her eyes, Mason said, "I see how it goes now. You don't cast the actors. They cast themselves" — an instructive lesson not limited to acting.

During the ten years of their marriage, Mason acted in a lot of Simon material — from the sensitive melodrama in Only When I Laugh to the broad farce of The Cheap Detective. But she is best known for her title-role portrayal of single mother Paula McFadden in The Goodbye Girl. Although Simon wrote the role for Mason, it is not her movie. She played the "straight man" while Richard Dreyfuss and young Quinn Cummings danced pirouettes around her.

Eighteen years after the film's release — and more than a decade after Mason and Simon had divorced — he was persuaded to adapt The Goodbye Girl into a Broadway musical. Bernadette Peters and Martin Short played the key roles. When the leading lady began to complain that she didn't have as many laugh lines as did Short, Simon explained that "Marsha didn't get many laughs, but she was the backbone, the spine of the movie...the most empathetic character in the film." Peters didn't want empathy; she wanted jokes. "I gave in and started writing funny lines for her," Simon ruefully reports in The Play Goes On. "She got the laughs, but we paid the price. The show lost its heart." The musical eked out a five-month run.

Life After Neil. When her marriage to Simon ended in 1983, skeptical voices could be heard murmuring that Mason was dependent on him for her roles; her career was over. Hardly. Her first post-Simon role was opposite Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge. She was strong enough to take him on, yet feminine enough to lead him on. (Mason might be the most compatible leading lady Eastwood has ever had.) In a career noted for its variety, she has worked with Matthew Broderick, James Caan, Johnny Depp, Peter Falk, Albert Finney, Jason Robards, George Segal, Tom Selleck, Donald Sutherland and, on both screen and stage, Anthony Hopkins. No snob about television, she enjoyed a recurring role opposite John Mahoney on Frasier and now portrays Patricia Heaton's mother on ABC's The Middle.

After spending time with Paul Newman and his racecar team, she was so captivated by "the energy and sheer fun" of the sport that she too became a driver. Mason qualified for the Valvoline National SCAA runoffs four years in a row. She also cast herself as a businesswoman with Resting in the River, a line of organic farm products. And she has returned to her first love, the stage, both on Broadway (revivals of The Night of the Iguana and Steel Magnolias) and throughout the nation. She starred in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in Santa Fe and recently acted in Chicago in a new adaption of Euripides' Hecuba.

"I can honestly say I love all actors," Mason writes in her memoir. "I especially love standing on the stage of an old theater with just the work light as my companion. I like to look all around me and out into the audience, the dark void, feeling the subtle presence of those who have been there before."

The Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall doesn't yet qualify as old, but it's a sure bet that when Mason takes the stage there on June 9, she will feel the resonance of having come full circle once again.

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