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Marsha Mason tackles Shaw in Old Globe’s production of ‘Arms and the Man’

Veteran actor Marsha Mason plays Catherine Petkoff in George Bernard Shaw’s romantic comedy at the Old Globe.
Veteran actor Marsha Mason plays Catherine Petkoff in George Bernard Shaw’s romantic comedy at the Old Globe.
/ Courtesy

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, who certainly lived up to it in his 90+ years. An essayist, short story writer and novelist, Shaw is perhaps best known for penning more than 60 plays. His “Arms and The Man,” first produced in 1894, will have a run at the Old Globe’s Shiley Stage Theatre, May 9–June 14.

“Shaw’s distinction is that he uniquely manages to be astringently unsentimental and aridly ironic, while being at the same time, flat-out funny,” noted Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein. “His themes remain relevant, and that’s a major reason we return to him.”

Edelstein said he invited Jessica Stone to direct the classic Shaw comedy because of her passion for the play and the way she directed “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” last year at the Globe.

“Arms and The Man,” explores the clash between romantic ideals and the surprising sensations of new love that occur as the beautiful Raina Petkoff (Wrenn Schmidt) gets ready to marry the heroic soldier, Sergius (Enver Gjokaj). An enemy soldier (Zach Appelman), who is fleeing from the war, takes refuge under her bed and threatens to shoot her if she reveals his presence, so Raina hides him.

While spending time with him, she finds herself intrigued, especially when she learns he uses his ammunition pouches to carry chocolates rather than pistol cartridges. After she and her mother Catherine Petkoff (Marsha Mason), sneak him out of the house, Raina has much to think about.

Mason said found the role of Catherine an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

“I’d never done a Shaw play before, and I felt it was important to have at least one experience under my belt,” she said. “I love good writing and these sorts of plays are not done very often. The story has layers to it and this terrific mixture of a sharp and incisive intellectual approach and a romantic silly layer. In a sense, Shaw was ‘baffooning,’ a sort of presentational kind of acting that was being done at that time. He wanted it to be successful, so he wrote wonderful funny situations.”

Mason’s career as a film, TV and stage actor has spanned decades and includes Academy Award nominations (“The Goodbye Girl,” “Cinderella Liberty,” “Only When I Laugh,” “Chapter Two,”) along with Golden Globe and Emmy nominations.

“I always wanted to be an actor, but it didn’t come to me until I was a freshman in high school,” she said. “I didn’t know it consciously … one time I asked my uncle why he called me ‘Sarah,’ and he said, ‘after Sarah Bernhardt.’ I must’ve been doing something that made him feel that way, and I do have a passion for acting and in being able to find my way into a character. Acting gives me an opportunity to show different sides of my personality, make surprising choices, and creates challenges for me with every new project.”

Mason has also been a director and said she understands the job Stone faces.

“The role of the director is to have a vision. In a piece like this, you really have to have eyes and ears out in the audience to form the pictures, and an arc focused on what they’re going through (that connects with the stage.) You couldn’t do this play without a firm hand, especially because comedy requires a lot of timing. Jessica has this well in hand.

“This is a big play with two intermissions because of set changes. It’s a challenge to be able to get everything on and off in its proper place in such a short time. It’s a luxury for the Old Globe to have such a professional staff, with beautiful costumes by David Reynoso, the lighting design by Austin R. Smith, and scenic design by Ralph Funicello, whom I’ve worked with before.”

Mason said she hopes the audience will believe in the characters and enjoy Shaw’s wonderful work.