Cherry Jones on "Doubt"
A generation ago it was commonplace - even expected - that when an actress had a triumphant run on Broadway that they would repeat it on the road. It wasn’t unusual to see stars like Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, or Tallulah Bankhead turn up at a local theater - such as the Colonial in Boston - in a touring edition of a New York hit. Sometimes such tours could help a struggling show make a profit, such as when Katherine Hepburn toured in Coco a generation ago; other times it gave local audiences the opportunity to see a legendary actress give a seminal performance - as Julie Harris did with The Belle of Amherst, also three decades ago.
Today such tours are the exception to the rule, which is why it is such an occasion when Cherry Jones comes to the Colonial next week in Doubt: A Parable. Not that the Pulitzer-Prize winning drama by John Patrick Shanley isn’t important enough to generate theatrical excitement; but having Jones repeat her Tony Award-winning stint in the play makes it an event not to be missed.
Not that Jones is a stranger to local stages. Before she moved to New York in the 1990s, she was a founding member of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre where she appeared in some 25 productions (including Twelfth Night, The Three Sisters, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Lysistrata,) winning an Elliot Norton Award for her work. Her Broadway appearances have helped establish her as the leading stage actress of her generation. She won her first Tony Award for her performance as the tightly-wound spinster in The Heiress at Lincoln Center Theatre. Additionally she has given award-winning turns in productions as diverse as The Baltimore Waltz (OBIE Award winner,) Pride’s Crossing (Lucille Lortel, Outer Circle, and Drama Desk awards,) Angels in America, The Night of the Iguana, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Faith Healer, and Imaginary Friends (where she played novelist Mary McCarthy.)
Jones is also familiar from numerous roles in movies, such as The Perfect Storm, Signs, The Village, Erin Brockovich, the Cradle Will Rock, and on television in The West Wing.
But it the role of Sister Aloysius, the no-nonsense nun in Shanley’s play, that she has a special fondness for, so much so that when the road tour was announced she jokingly said that she didn’t want any other actress to play it but herself.
"Yes, I did say that," she said laughing from Chicago last week where Doubt had settled for a three-week run. "But the main reason is that I always wanted to do a ’tour’ in my lifetime. And I knew that this was going to be the one. I knew that this would tour most successfully of any play that I could imagine doing because all you have to do is hear this play, you don’t have to see it. The audience really doesn’t have to see our faces; and in so many of the larger houses we’ve played on the road, they can’t see our faces. It’s these huge, huge theaters. I knew that any play could survive those houses, this play could. It’s about the ideas, and if they can hear it, they can get it.
"Thank God that will not be the case in Boston," she added. "We are looking forward to the Colonial."
Jones speaks with a husky warmth that still has touches of her Tennessee upbringing. It is a cadence that seems far removed from the clipped manner she brings to Sister Aloysius, a character who has been known to put fear into the hearts of her fellow actors onstage. "I know that Chris McGarry (who plays Father Flynn) has said that when I look at him on stage he thinks I want to kill him. But Aloysius is this bigger-than-life character, and she drives the play. When I went back into rehearsals for the tour I was luxuriating in the knowledge that I had of this woman, so I was able to make my performance more subtle and less theatrical; but I’m sure the minute we reached these larger houses that went right out the window. I turned into the big theatrical ham that I am. So I can never allow myself to soften her. She’s got to be real and she’s got to be incredibly passionate."
The narrative thrust of Doubt: A Parable is something of detective story: Set in a Bronx parish in 1964, the play concerns Sister Aloysius’s suspicions that a parish priest - Father Flynn - is sexually abusing a 10-year old boy. The question becomes, is it true and what can she do about it? The answers come in the play’s taut 90-minute running time.
"Everyone thinks the play is about pedophilia," Jones explained, "but it is not. What it is really about is about the audience and their response to its situation, and that is what is most interesting. Their perception of the events as they unfold - that is what the play becomes. We can’t watch the audience, but we feel them; and just ten-minutes into the play, it becomes theirs in such a palpable way that we, as actors, are there to serve them and let them have the experience. At that point the audience starts to do battle with their own hearts and minds; and it’s fascinating to be part of."
For Jones finding the character became a process that led her to use such props (used during rehearsal) and to create an extensive back story for Aloysius. "I gave her a whopping good back story. To some degree I do that with every character, but more so with Aloysius. Because I had to figure out a way to support her certainty - her insanely rigid certainty."
What was curious is that Jones chose not to speak to any real-life nuns in developing the character.
"And I didn’t feel guilty about it either. She’s a universal character. Even if she were not a nun - you could take the nun habit off her and put her in a 1964 matronly dress - she would be the same person. I did, though, call upon all of the nun stories I ever heard from all my Catholic friends. The first 20 you think they are exaggerating; but when you hit the 70th, you began to think there is truth to them. You hear about the kind and generous ones, or the demented ones, and the strong-willed ones, and the emotionally disturbed ones - you hear about them all. But nuns have always fascinated me. I grew up, of course, on The Sound of Music and Rosalind Russell in The Trouble with Angels, so I was primed for nun stories. I use all sorts of resources, none of which are the traditional ones you’d expect an actress to use.
"I didn’t though use Rosalind Russell because she wasn’t Sister Aloysius in the least," she added with a laugh.
What did add to her crafting of her performance was when she put on her costume for the first time.
"I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get close to her until I put on the habit, so during rehearsals we always had a mock-up - I had a cassock and a little hat that I wore, and I had some glasses. I always appreciated how much the silhouette of a costume aids an actor in making clear to an audience who they are. This is just about the best costume I ever had."
She also considers it one of the best parts she has ever had, though Shanley - best-known for his Oscar-winning script for Moonstruck - did not have Jones in mind when he wrote the play. "
"It was offered to at least three people before it came to me. People kept declining, but my agent had me read it to see if I was interested and I knew it was a terrific play. The best new play I have ever read. And then once I got it, I thought what the hell? How am I going to play this woman? I’m a Methodist from Tennessee. But Doug Hughes (the play’s director) took me through it step-by-step, and made sure that she stayed appropriately appalling. He was banking on the fact that I have this humanity that comes through whatever I’m doing, so it’s his job to make me appalling, trusting that humanity would bleed through at the appropriate times. So hopefully that’s what we’ve been able to pull off because she is a terrifying and, I think, profoundly noble person."
Has she ever known anyone like Sister Aloysius?
"We’ve all grown up with someone like Aloysius, who was both terrifying and had our best interests at heart. For me it was my doctor’s nurse when I was kid. I remember I broke the scab when I had my tonsils taken out, and to stop the bleeding they had to put this huge metal rod down my throat. But to this day I remember that wonderful nurse -this huge woman with big breasts and grey, Brillo-like hair - looking down at me and saying ’Cherry Jones, do you want to lie there and bleed to death?’ I was 5-years old and I remember nodding my head with my teeth clenched. I didn’t want them to do it because it I didn’t want to have that rod shoved down my throat. I was so traumatized. I always joked that was one of the reasons I’m a lesbian to this day."
Which led the conversation to talk about Jones’s status as an openly gay actress, something she’s been since she came to New York at the age of 21. When she accepted her Tony Award in 1995 for The Heiress, she thanked her partner (architect Mary O’Connor) at the time; and did the same in 2005 when she picked up the award for Doubt. The difference was that her new partner is actress Sarah Paulson (a recent Golden Globe nominee for the NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and her comment led to much tabloid press.
"I don’t know why it was such a big deal," said Jones, "No. We are not at all trying to hide our relationship. We’ve just chosen not to talk about it in public. We’re very happy."
What does she think Sister Aloysius think of the openness of gay life in today’s world?
"Your first response is to think of her as this close-minded old biddy; but her next response shows she is more enlightened than the audience has given her credit for. And that’s because Aloysius knows someone who is light in the loafers. I know that for a fact. I’ve made that up, but I can because I’m the one playing her - it’s part of her back story. And it points to the reason why we as a community have progressed so quickly in the past few years. That is because more and more of us are living open lives and have contact with people that we thought would loathe us, but don’t. This is why we progress exponentially as a movement each year. Because everybody knows and loves someone who is gay, even Sister Aloysius."
Was it true that her first crush was Julie Andrews?
"Oh, yes. I first knew her because I listened to My Fair Lady over and over and over again from the first time I could pick up the needle and plop it down on the LP. I had a big, huge, fat crush on Julie Andrews. I didn’t want her to be my ward or my camp counselor, I just wanted her to be my lover. It didn’t happen that way, but I do say that I know her know and she’s just wonderful."
You might think that at this point in her career that Jones wouldn’t care what the critics say about her, but that’s not the case. She admits reading them, for better or worse, and sees the good ones as being as debilitating as the bad ones.
"I read them more than I should because I am just so damn curious. I just want to know what everyone thinks. The good reviews can be as difficult to deal with emotionally as the bad ones because there is nothing worse than looking out over an audience knowing that they are expecting the second coming and knowing that in no way in hell that you can deliver that. And sometimes a highly critical review can be a help if it is constructive."
She paused a moment and remembered one of the first times she saw her name in print. It was for a performance she gave as a member of the Brooklyn Academy of Music theater company.
"It was from John Simon in New York Magazine when I was 23 years old. He said Cherry Jones is an unmitigated disaster. Now that wasn’t terribly constructive. Actually, it was very funny, it’s that weird thing with the bad reviews, you do remember them. And it was the first time that I had seen my name in New York magazine, and I had this perverse excitement over this hideous review I had been given. I remember I folded it up and put it in the pocket of a blazer of mine in the back of my closet in my little New York apartment. I remember my parents and my sister were coming up from Tennessee to stay with me. I went off to work that day, and came home to find my mother in a fury. I said, Mother, what is it? And she said, ’you’re sister went into your closet to borrow that darling blazer in the back of the closet, and she found this review in your pocket. I want to know where the headquarters is for the magazine because I want to go and blow it up!’ "
Doubt: A Parable plays February 6 - 18 at the Colonial Theatre, 106 Bolyston St., Boston, MA. Performances: Tuesdays - Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2 & 8pm; and Sunday at 1 & 5pm. Call 617-931-2787 or visit www.broadwayacrossamerica.com