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A Benefit of 'Doubt'

Cherry Jones May Be Agnostic, but She Fills the Stage With Her Spirit

By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page N01


An angry nun is holding forth. "When you take a step against wrongdoing," she announces stoutly, "you are taking a step away from God -- but in His service."

Sometimes a single oblique sentence can define a character. The nun is Sister Aloysius, and she is a paragon of dogma and rectitude. Her face is taut, the mouth pursed in indignation, the eyes somewhat obscured by heavy glasses. But nothing, it seems, is obscured to Aloysius: She knows beyond knowing that the parish priest, Father Flynn, has molested one of the boys in her high school, and she also knows what she must do.

Brian F. O'Byrne stars opposite Jones in John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt." (Joan Marcus)

The scene is from a performance of John Patrick Shanley's new drama, "Doubt" -- set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964 -- which has just moved to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre after a highly successful run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Aloysius is being given ferocious life by Cherry Jones, who for some years now has made herself a source of wonder for theatergoers both here and elsewhere. From her Tony-winning breakthrough in "The Heiress" a decade ago through such disparate works as "The Night of the Iguana," "Pride's Crossing" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten," she has been hailed repeatedly as a pristine light of the stage.

Over the play's 90 taut minutes, Jones's nun does terrible battle with Brian F. O'Byrne's handsome, magnetic Father Flynn. She wants him out of her school, away from her kids. He is first dismissive, then, as her attack escalates, seriously threatened. And as the action evolves, Jones subtly delineates the twists and gullies beneath Aloysius's hard exterior.

There are also twists in the play -- as well as unexpected humor -- and when it isn't convulsed in laughter the audience sits at attention until the struggle ends. Though the issue of guilt is left unresolved, at the climax gasps are heard through the theater.

A Habit of Severity

The next afternoon is cold, the gray sky as stern as Aloysius's glare. Jones, 48, is seated in her dressing room -- white, with mirrors that reflect burgundy seat cushions, pink towels and a bouquet of flowers -- awaiting the call to rehearsal. Her manner is cheerful, and in her black V-neck, jeans, hoop earrings and shoulder-length hair, she looks nothing like the character she plays.

"Well, there's nothing like a good pair of glasses!" she exclaims, reaching for the nun's spectacles. "These are the greatest. Look what kind of bifocals I got them to put in -- remember the half-circles that all of our grandparents and parents had? They still -- no one asks for them, but they can still do them. These things are absolutely transforming. I mean, it's like a Halloween costume. . . . And I don't wear a stitch of makeup. And I just brush -- this is my makeup prep -- I brush my eyebrows down."

"Doubt" director Doug Hughes speaks admiringly of Jones's "commitment to transformation rather than the projection of a winning personality." But it was more than that that caused him to choose her for this part.

"In casting Aloysius," he says, "it was important to make clear that beneath that exterior was an abundant spirit, and you can't find a more abundant spirit than Cherry. I thought there was a way that Aloysius could be played that wouldn't serve the text, and I knew that wouldn't happen with Cherry."

His faith is shared by others. Before the previous evening's performance, a man took his seat on the aisle and loftily informed his companion, "Cherry Jones is one of the five top actresses in the New York theater today." Which makes Jones feel exactly how?

"Well, if I know what I'm doing in a role, ab-solutely marvelous," she says with a laugh. "And if I don't, scared [bleep]less."

For her work in "Doubt," absolutely marvelous would be the verdict -- from opinion-makers, audiences and, from all appearances, Jones herself. In the press, she's been hailed as "brilliant," "magnificent," "divine" and "incomparable," among other things, and she's expected to have a good chance to pick up her second Tony this spring. (The play and her cast mates have also received heavy praise.)

She can handle the plaudits, but she insists Hughes "has spoon-fed me this character. I mean, I came in with very good instincts for her -- how or where they came from I do not know, being a Methodist from Tennessee. But then he took my instincts and has literally spoon-fed the character to me. Because I would never have made her as rigorous and -- I do not have a rigorous mind. And that's been the hardest thing for me to catch up with this role."

Back to those instincts -- does that mean she's religious?

"No," she says. "Never have been. At 12, I got so angry at the church, and -- it was also the height of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement had started to disintegrate and things were all coming unglued. It was 1968, '69, and I just lost any faith I'd ever had as a child and never really regained it. To the point that I was belligerent towards those who did have faith, for many years -- very adolescently belligerent." She laughs at the memory. "But I've gotten over that. 'Cause of course now I envy people who have a strong, simple faith, 'cause I see what it gives them. . . . I've just never understood how people did have faith. And it's not that I don't believe there's a grand Creator -- I just don't know." Chuckle. "And I don't know how anyone can!"

Jones grew up in Paris, Tenn., a community of not quite 10,000 in the western part of the state. As a kid she found she enjoyed showing off in front of grown-ups. Then, in the early '70s, she saw "A Moon for the Misbegotten" in Chicago, with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst. It changed her life.

Dewhurst "was the first woman that I ever saw onstage that made me realize what was possible for an actress," Jones says. "I just remember gripping the rail of the mezzanine, and I never let go for two hours and 40 minutes."

From there, all she wanted was the stage. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon and spent most of the 1980s at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., appearing in two dozen productions. Roles in New York and regional theaters followed, and when director Gerald Gutierrez tapped her to play Catherine Sloper in "The Heiress" -- an insecure, beaten-down woman caught between her disapproving father and a charming fortune-hunter -- she was ready.

The play was, as noted, a triumph. Jones recently watched a tape of it and loved almost everything -- except her own performance.

"I was so embarrassed," she says. "I thought, 'Where can I ship my Tony back?' " Big laugh. "I thought, 'How in the hell did I get away with that?' But I also know that it was something that was never meant to be taped. And the experience in the room is quite different than the experience on tape. And so I managed to cut myself a little slack." Still, "I just thought, 'What was I doing with my voice?' and -- I was stunned. I thought it would be a little better than that."

At least one critic has observed that actors are forever shedding their skins, and then, having morphed into something new, deploring their former selves.

"That's the thing, too," she agrees. "We're never meant to see it. And we shouldn't. 'Cause what we do onstage is -- it's meant to be intangible. It's meant to be ephemeral, it's meant to be -- in memory only." She breaks into a conspiratorial whisper: "And therefore -- embellished." She laughs a big long laugh.

Control Issues

Catherine Sloper and Sister Aloysius could hardly be less alike. The former is ruled and defined by men, always trying to please, hoping someone will decide to love her. Aloysius is the attacker, the catalyst: in a very different way, the reason for her play.

"You know, what's so interesting about Sloper and Aloysius -- Aloysius is classically the male role," she says. "And Brian's role is classically the feminine role of this play. He's the victim, he's pursued, he's tormented. And I'm the one completely in control at all times until the very end. And, uh" -- she pauses -- "it's fun to be in control!" She roars, then whispers again. "It's easy. It's much easier to be the one in control. . . . I had no idea. All these years I'd been the poor little prey. The one in charge is fun. I'm loving it. I'm loving being the guy!"

O'Byrne, for his part, acknowledges that the play has the quality of a tennis match to the death. One recent performance, he says, went a step beyond that.

"It was a little more violent," he says. "It was like a 'Mad Max' film, tearing strips from each other. Then we walk off and start giggling. Both of us every night are just laughing. It's just so much fun. Both of us are fighting for the audience, so we can't let up. Nobody wins, but both of us feel each night, 'They're gonna come with me.' "

Of sharing the stage with Jones, he says: "There's two different things. As the character, it's dreadful. This immovable lump of granite in front of you. As an actor, it's wonderful . . . having an actor across from you who's that strong. The environment is safe, because she's so talented." He adds: "I've seen her more as Aloysius, so it's always a surprise to see Cherry. She's beautiful and soft and loving as a person."

Like a lot of other actors, Jones draws from life in creating her characters. But in her case the source is generally the same.

"I think I use my mother a lot in everything," she says. "She is a woman with tremendous strength and dignity and humor and intelligence, and when that temper is flared, it's blinding. Controlled, but lightning and blinding. She was an English teacher all her life . . . and I could use parts of her for Catherine Sloper, physical things. The coming down the stairs I'm sure I got because my mother has a dramatic flair, and I'm sure I've seen her come down stairs the way Catherine floated down stairs.

"My mother grew up by a creek and a railroad track down in a bottom in the hollows of middle Tennessee. . . . And they were dirt-poor, but they had such self-worth and dignity. My mother's greatest flaw, which I have inherited, is that she can often pass judgment on something she knows ab-solutely nothing about." She laughs warmly. "And then she'll be the first to admit she was wrong. . . . But I've watched her do it more than once, just in awe that such an intelligent person could do that, and then of course I do the same thing."

Jones is seen often -- albeit briefly in most cases -- on the screen. She's played smallish roles in such biggish movies as "Erin Brockovich," "The Perfect Storm," "Signs" and "Ocean's Twelve."

"My parts are always so small, it's always just two weeks here or three weeks there, and it helps subsidize my theater," she says. "If I'm working off-Broadway somewhere, that film job will get me through the year financially. So I'll go anywhere for film work. . . . The money's better, and they give you a nice seat on the plane."

Still, wouldn't it be nice to be a little better known?

"I'm just famous enough," she counters. "In fact, I'd like to be less famous. My little minor celebrity is -- I tell you, most people who know me from the theater who say things to me -- it always really makes my day. Because they know who I am and what they've seen me in. People who've seen me in film think I'm either their dental hygienist or 'somebody famous.' . . . I don't know how television people do it, who have that kind of exposure. Or famous film people. I think the loss of anonymity is the booby prize of success."

Going Public

When Jones won her Tony Award in 1995, her acceptance speech included thanks to her then-partner, architect Mary O'Connor. It was a moment a lot of gay people still remember.

"I hadn't thought about it," she says. "In the first place, I lumped Mary in with a lot of other people. I didn't say, 'And I want to thank my lover, Mary.' I don't even remember what I said, but you know, we kissed before I went up, and then I thanked her, but I think the gay community was so thrilled that an openly lesbian woman had won that my little paltry acknowledgment became this -- was embellished in a way, which I was delighted for them to take and run with. . . . But I didn't -- had I to do it over I would have given them a lot more to talk about." Big laugh. "I felt a little niggardly."

For a long time she avoided making any acknowledgment back in Tennessee.

"I was a chicken and always said that I will talk when my parents ask me because then I'll know they're ready," she says. "Which was my little chicken way of saying, 'Let's wait a few years.' But I'd been out professionally forever. But by the time I was 25, my mother asked me. It was not so hard on my father, but it's that same-sex issue -- with your parent of the same sex it's always harder. . . . Because Mother was prepared to share me with another man, but she was not prepared to share me with another woman.

"She said when it was confirmed in her mind that I was gay that she grieved for me as though she had been told her child had an incurable disease and was going to die. And for many years after that, she really suffered with it, and I finally said, you know, 'How are you doing, Mother, with it?' And she said, 'Well, intellectually I'm right where I should be. I'm very good about it. But emotionally I'm still a basket case about it.' And I said, 'Well now, Mama, you can go through life with a lump in your throat, in pain about me. But I'm happy, I'm healthy, I'm reasonably well-adjusted, I have more success than I ever could have dreamed of, I have a wonderful personal life. . . . And it seems to me like a sin to grieve over a child who's that blessed.' And I think that sort of got through to her" -- she laughs -- "being a good Methodist, it seemed like a waste of grief."

That was years ago, but it appears that Jones is still blessed. Certainly "Doubt" will be a highlight of her career when she looks back on it, and who knows what might lie ahead?

Hughes: "Her talent is extremely broad. . . . I sure as hell would love to see Cherry Jones play Amanda Wingfield in 'The Glass Menagerie.' I think she'd be a great Cleopatra in 'Antony and Cleopatra.' That play is seldom staged in America, but I'd love to do it with her."

Jones is a member of a shrinking tribe -- actors who choose to make their careers on the New York stage and are able to do so. To her the pull of the theater is something very precise.

"The language and the ideas. The camaraderie," she says. "And the audience."

The audience: When she speaks of the ways people embellish their favorite theater performances, she gets at the magic of theatergoing. A moment on the stage has two lives: One, the immediate, is brilliant and intense, but it's gone as soon as it's happened. The other lies in the memory, and there it can attain a kind of perfection that isn't possible anywhere else. That's because much of what we're remembering is how it made us feel.

This afternoon Jones will brush down her eyebrows and don her glasses and her nun's habit to go a few more rounds with O'Byrne and Father Flynn. As they rip into each other, their audience, if it's typical, will laugh and gasp and sit transfixed and wonder what the truth is.

And later, perhaps, they'll embellish.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company