Entertainment » Theatre

Cherry Jones’ Great Adventure

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Feb 6, 2013
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It might be surprising to learn that Cherry Jones has yet played Amanda Wingfield - one of Tennessee Williams’ most revered characters - from "The Glass Menagerie." Jones, twice a Tony Award-winner, is at the top of her profession, transitioning easily from the stage to feature film roles and, most successfully, to television in an Emmy-winning role as the U.S. President on "24."

But the role of Wingfield, the domineering, yet charming matriarch in most famous of memory plays, has eluded her.

The reason, she explained with a laugh after a rehearsal of the new production that premieres this week at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, was that no one asked her... until John Tiffany.

That is all it took - the opportunity to work with the young, Scottish director best known for his adventurous staging of the Broadway hit "Once." Who ever thought of directing a musical without any choreography? That was Tiffany’s approach to the stage version of the downbeat Irish film about love found and lost amongst Dublin street musicians, and it paid off: he won the Tony Award for direction and impressed Jones enough that she wanted to work with him.

Just putting Jones’ name above the marquee is more than enough to bring considerable attention to the production, which runs through March 17 at the ART’s Cambridge home. Add a cast that includes hunk-du-jour Zachary Quinto as Tom, Tony-nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and up-and-coming Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller; plus rumors of an intriguing visual concept (courtesy of Bob Crowley), and the buzz is high.


Difficult to say no

Not that Jones is any stranger to highly original takes on the classics. She spent most of the 1980s as a member of ART’s repertory company during the years when artistic director Robert Brustein brought the cream of Europe’s theatrical avant-garde to Cambridge. During those years, Jones appeared in such plays as "King Lear," "Twelfth Night" (with Diane Lane),"Three Sisters," "As You Like It," "The Serpent Woman", "Life is a Dream," "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," "Major Barbara," "Love’s Labors Lost," and (more recently) "Lysistrata."

On Broadway the out actress appeared in "Angels in America," "A Moon for the Misbegotten," "The Night of the Iguana," "Faith Healer" and "Mrs. Warren’s Profession." She won two Tony Awards for Best Leading Actress in a Play for "Doubt" (1995), then a decade later for "The Heiress." It was at that Tony Award ceremony where Jones kissed her then girlfriend Sarah Paulson when the award was announced, then thanked her "Laura Wingfield" from the podium. Paulson was starring in a production of "The Glass Menagerie" on Broadway that starred Jessica Lange as Amanda. Paulson has gone onto greater fame starring in the recently completed "American Horror Story: Asylum." (As did Lange).

Speaking to Jones recently, "American Horror Story: Asylum" came up in the conversation, not only because of Paulson’s involvement, but also because her son in this "Glass Menagerie" family is Quinto, who fans of the series know for his icy portrayal of a homicidal psychiatrist with his own set of mommy issues.

First, though, Jones acknowledged her state of mind.


Couldn’t say no

Cherry Jones: I am complete toast. (Laughs)

EDGE: How come?

Cherry Jones: Well, it’s Sunday night and we just finished a week of rehearsals. And today we had our sweet farewell to that funky, wonderful rehearsal space. For John Tiffany I think it was especially poignant because he had come up and developed ’Once’ in that space.

EDGE: Is it true you turned down playing Amanda in the past?

Cherry Jones: I never declined playing it. No one asked me. But I would have declined. Why I said yes this time is John Tiffany. It’s very difficult to say no to John Tiffany. He’s a delicious, goofy theater genius - I probably shouldn’t say that word because I don’t want anyone to think that I am being hyperbolic - but he’s an insanely gifted theater artist. You know if you say no to him you are going to miss out on one of the great adventures of your life.

For instance, just the other day he took Zach, Celia, Brian and me over to the Loeb, which was empty. No set. No curtain. People don’t realize how enormous that stage is, especially for a room that size. What John did was have Zach stand up in the back of the house on one side, had me stand in the other corner, had Celia stand in the back of the stage and had Brian in-between all of us in what I use to call the great divide - that aisle that separates the orchestra. And we just started speaking the play to each other across the vast space; then we rotated doing full scenes from the play. When we got through, John said, You own the space. You’ve played every corner of this room. I had never done that before. It creates this intimacy immediately with the space. He’s a very clever boy.


Risks being hated

EDGE: This role comes with a lot of history. In the Williams canon, only Blanche Dubois is of equal stature. Are you the least apprehensive about playing it?

Cherry Jones: I still have no idea if we are going to pull this one off, or how my Amanda will be. It doesn’t matter to me. I just want to serve this production and this cast. The young people in this cast are so gorgeous. Each of them. Zach brings this sensuality to this Tom that is unbelievable. He explores everything. There is nothing general about anything that Zach does. And Celia (Keenan-Bolger) is doing that kind of magic - you know, Laughing, I can’t talk about her without wanting to cry. She has an intelligence and strength with this role that I have never seen before; and also a paralyzing fragility she cannot control. And Brian Jay Smith. I don’t think there’s been a finer gentleman caller in the history of this play. That’s just not purple prose - we all know we are watching something special. I shouldn’t be saying this to the press because I don’t want him to ever get wind of this because that’s a lot of pressure to live up to. It is an extraordinarily exquisite performance and we all know it. We all know it and appreciate it. He doesn’t know it, and that is what makes him beautiful as an actor.

EDGE: Williams based Amanda on his mother Edwina, and his portrait of her is an equal mix of charm and abrasiveness. What is it that you like about her?

Cherry Jones: Amanda is, of course, Tennessee’s mother Edwina; but she also is not, because Edwina was a privileged woman that never had to worry as to where her next meal was coming from, even if her husband was tight or stingy, she knew that her children would be clothed and fed very well.

Amanda didn’t have that privilege. She has had to rear these children by herself in the North, which is a foreign universe to this woman who was born and raised in Mississippi. That she didn’t go home to Mississippi makes me think that there is no home to go back to. That her family had died out. And Tennessee never brings that (her back story) up - it’s almost as if he didn’t care about that part of Amanda. But she had to see these children through the Depression. They were just teenagers - how did she feed them? So she had been through a great deal.

Now Tom, her son, is of age, and it is now time for him to help to get his sister married or taken care of in some way before he flies the nest. Because Amanda is in that awful position that all parents are in who have children that are incapable of surviving in the world. I just can’t imagine anything worse than the nightmares of parents with vulnerable, attendant children. That’s Amanda’s dilemma, and of course she puts that pressure on Tom. And I love her. (laughs) I love her. She could drive you mad, but I love her commitment to these children. Modern parents are accused of not being disciplined enough to give ’tough love’ to their children so they can care for themselves when they’re grown. Amanda does. Amanda risks being hated. She can be hard and cruel, but she feels she needs to be. She’s something.


Back in Cambridge

EDGE: Being from the South, do you feel any kinship with Amanda?

Cherry Jones: Well I do in that I can appreciate how isolated she must have felt coming to St. Louis and how uncouth the North must feel to her coming from this Old South that was holding on by its toenails at that point. All that wealth had finally begun to dwindle and peter out and she was the last burst of the Old South. And there she is: a grown woman, two children and abandoned. I can appreciate having grown up in the South with those stories I heard about those times what it must be like.

EDGE: What is it like being back Cambridge again?

Cherry Jones: It’s that wonderful feeling of never having left. Because this place was home for me for almost all of the 1980s. I know every square inch. I love it. And I love watching my cast mates fall in love with this place. It seems almost bucolic and this is the dead of winter - I have no idea how much they would like it in the Spring. They are besotted with Cambridge, so it is nice to see it through their eyes.

EDGE: And what do you think of the changes to the American Repertory Theater in the past few years?

Cherry Jones: It’s just so wonderful, knowing that it is full and packed and vibrant and alive. It has recreated itself - that is a wonderful thing to see. Do I miss the old ART? Of course I do. That’s the theater I grew up in. We were doing all those wacky, Eastern European productions directed by wonderful Rumanians and Yugoslavians. It was a place for those people to work. I don’t think there’s a place for people do to that kind of avant-garde work anymore. There are plenty of regional theaters doing classics and revivals and new works, but that canvas of experimental avant-garde theater appears to be changing.

But one needs to respond to the taste of the audience. And I think the quality of the theater that the two Dianes (Artistic Director Diane Paulus and Interim Managing Director Diane Borger) are producing at the ART is pretty spectacular. I didn’t get to see ’Porgy and Bess.’ I saw ’Pippin’ and had a blast. And I know the level of quality that we hope to bring to our production. So it’s great to feel the excitement in that building.


A radical approach?

EDGE: There are rumors circulating that this is going to be a radical version of the play....

Cherry Jones: Oh, yeah. I think that people think that because it is John and that there has been some mention of the set that it is going to be radical. But it’s not at all. He is using as his Bible the forward that Tennessee wrote to the play. I have it here... hold on a second. (She reaches out for a copy of the script.)

He says that (quoting from Williams’ forward): ’Being a ’memory play,’ ’The Glass Menagerie’ can be presented with unusual freedom of convention. Because of its considerably delicate or tenuous material, atmospheric touches and subtleties of direction play a particularly important part. Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth. When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are."

He goes onto say that the straight, realistic play with its ’Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes, its characters that speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness.’

(She paused)

He’s telling John and all of us to go for a more penetrating truth. That’s what we are trying to do. We are not trying to re-invent the wheel. I have seen this play four times and have never seen a production of this play - watching it in a rehearsal room - that I’ve admired more.

EDGE: You have an amazing set designer in Bob Crowley, but the buzz about his set may be part of the reason why the production is being viewed as radical...

Cherry Jones: The set is so perfect. It’s my dream set for this play. Part of the reason why I never wanted to play it was because I am so depressed by the time the first line is spoken. There are always these grey walls, grey cityscapes and fire escapes. It all feels so claustrophobic. And I never thought it was right for the play.

That approach turned me off instantly. As I’ve always seen it played in the past as being cloying and claustrophobic; I wanted to climb out of my skin. But everything that Bob has done lifts us out of that vacuum. When I heard of this concept, I knew I wanted to be part of it because they open it up to the universe. The entire play is in a way a setting for the jewel - the gem - which is the gentleman caller scene. That’s the crown jewel of ’The Glass Menagerie’. And the rest of it is a setting in a way for that scene.


The AHS connection

EDGE: Now there’s just one degree of separation between yourself and a number of cast members from the FX series "American Horror Story: Asylum." In addition to your co-star, Zachary, there’s your ex- Sarah Paulson. Did you watch it?

Cherry Jones: (Laughs) It is soooo wild! I watched it because I loved watching Sarah find her way through the horrors - the hideousness of that show. Was it my favorite show? No. But did I love every single thing Sarah did? Yes. As difficult as it was. She was amazing. And Jessica is just extraordinary. And Zach turns out to be the sweetest guy you would ever want to meet. He’s a dreamboat. Sexy as all get-out. And different as night and day as that loathsome doctor on that show.

EDGE: You came out long before it became fashionable. Now that LGBT culture is more mainstream, do you think it’s a great time to be gay?

Cherry Jones: I think that anytime is a great time to be gay. (Laughs) It is so astonishing as we are hurtling along through space. Was it twelve years ago, I think, that I heard Bob Dole say on the floor of the Senate, the words ’gay marriage’? Even though he was saying them in a derogatory way, I had to give my harness belt a shake. I just couldn’t believe it. And now to hear that speech of Obama. Talk about holding back - when he makes his mind up about something, away we go. It was just thrilling to hear that in that speech. There ain’t no stoppin’ us now.

EDGE: Do you think we are reaching the point when it is no big deal to be gay?

Cherry Jones: Honesty, that’s how most of the young people in the country felt about Obama’s inaugural address. It’s a given now ... and that is remarkable.


An ephemeral art form

EDGE: The actor that first played Amanda Wingfield was Laurette Taylor, who today is likely remembered by just those in the theater. Yet her performance is often cited by those who saw it as one of the greatest in the history of the theater. Do you regret as an actress that these kind of great performances are only seen by those lucky enough to have gotten to the theater?

Cherry Jones: Oh, no. They (the performances) get embellished that way. (Pause) I was holding my laugh.

There is something wonderful about being part of an art form that is so ephemeral and disappears in the vapor. Because people come up to you years later and talk about some things that you did affected them, and you know darn well that it could never have been that way. It’s been embellished by memory. I’m sure Laurette Taylor was extraordinary in that role. But I also know that all of these people that we hear from saw her - I’ve heard Gena Rowlands talk about it, and Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant and Julie Harris and Elaine Stritch. And the common denominator was that they were all in their early 20s when they saw her. You know, the influence it had over them was so great, but also I know that in their minds it has grown and grown in stature.

I know that is what happened with me and Colleen Dewhurst. I saw her in ’Moon for the Misbegotten,’ and many years later after I had done a couple of productions of it -- one that enjoyed and one that I had performance fright with it. But when I first saw it, I was 16 and couldn’t take my eyes off Colleen; then years later, after doing the role, I saw a video of it. This time it was Jason Robards that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Not Colleen. She was hamming it up. It’s all so subjective. When I am struggling so with this part I remember a line from an autobiography of Eva LaGalliene (the great American actor, director and producer). It was a diary entry about going to see ’The Glass Menagerie’ with Laurette Taylor in it. After seeing it, she said, ’I don’t know what all the fuss is about.’

"The Glass Menagerie" continues through March 27, 2013 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.


Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.

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