Paige Davis in Arizona Theatre Company’s An Act of God. Photo by Tim Fuller.

Marsha Mason Talks Making God a "She" in "An Act of God"

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Performing Arts Issue: November 2016
Group Free

Arizona Theatre Company's "An Act of God." Image by Esser Design.Hey Phoenix, God is in town.

She's taken the form of Paige Davis, Broadway performer and former host of TLC's Trading Spaces, and is here (along with a couple of Her angels) to answer some of the biggest questions known to man, including the big papa: Why is masturbation a sin?

From Arizona Theatre Company, the first female production of the Broadway hit An Act of God debuts at Phoenix's Herberger Theater this weekend after a successful three week run in Tucson. Directed by four-time Academy Award nominee and two-time Golden Globe winner Marsha Mason, An Act of God is adapted from former The Daily Show with Jon Stewart writer and executive producer David Javerbaum's book The Last Testament: A Memoir By God. We caught up with Mason over the phone to talk shop.*

If you go:
An Act of God
Nov. 17 – Dec. 4, $25-$100
Herberger Theater Center
222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix
602-256-6995, arizonatheatre.org

Marsha Mason. Courtesy The Kur Carr Group, Inc.What originally attracted you to An Act of God?
It's comedy which I love. It's very complex and interesting material. It's basically an hour and a half of God talking to the audience. She's deciding to come down to earth and write some new commandments. David Goldstein [Arizona Theatre Co. artistic director] approached me and wanted a woman to play God. [Sean Hayes and Jim Parsons have played the heavenly role in previous productions]. What's quite extraordinary is I thought at first it would require a major rewrite...and then when I read the material I realized no, with the exception of a few pronoun changes, the material was basically universal. With comedy, people tend to discount the material because we don't take it seriously. If it's really good, it's often quite serious and thought provoking.

The synopsis on the ATC website says: God and Her angels answer some of the deepest questions that have plagued humankind since Creation. What are some of those questions?
Why do bad things happen to good people? Who is it really that should be honored? Children or parents? If God is God, then why do we have to have such suffering and upset? All that's considered emotional responses to the world. I find it very provocative. Hopefully the audience the next day is thinking about the issues raised in a wonderful way.

Was the timing of having the first female in the role of God at all on the nose with the first female running for president?
That was kind of coincidental. I think the play functions on its own no matter what the political climate is.

It was ATC's idea to make God female. What sort of character traits did you want to imbue Her with?
The play really affords a kind of spontaneous rewrite based on the personality of whoever's playing it. They get to say some rather self-deprecating things about themselves. [With Paige] we have this terrific, positive personality, filled with perky charm... and Broadway moxie. Her personality is so charming. David wrote her a line: God says at the very top: 'I decided I would come down in the form of Paige Davis, I don't know the girl but I understand she's very charming.”

You've played them before and now you're directing one, what attracts to you to strong female characters?
I think all female characters are interesting actually if they're well written. Any good character is about complexity. That's really what I look for in material, is that complexity. Both vulnerability and strength. The opposites we all carry. The more complex, the more interesting to do. In January I'm going to go to Arena Stage [in Washington D.C.] and do Watch on the Rhine [a 1941 play written by Lillian Hellman], this time I'm going to act. It's about the beginning of fascism in the country in the United States...What it's about really intrigued me because it's all about a family...and so much is left unstated. That's what I get very excited about now.

Speaking of, you have a long list of film, television and play acting credits to your name, how is directing different? Is it preferable or no?
In some ways it's preferable. There's something kind of wonderful about providing a safe environment for an actor. All I try to do is do what I would like a director to do with me. To see what the person brings to it that's different from me. I don't want them to do it like I would do it. [I want to give them a space] in which to explore themselves.

How has the play been received in Arizona thus far?
It's been phenomenal. We got standing ovations, we got really nice reviews. They're really taking to the material which is great... I wasn't sure about how it would be received. When you start discussing religion and God, it gets sort of complicated. But they were laughing loud and applauding certain lines. We'll see what Phoenix has to offer. I hope the audience enjoys it and it provokes some good discussion.

*Questions and answers have been edited for cohesiveness.