Published in KPBS On Air Magazine February 1997
Just before she went into rehearsals for the world premiere production of “Pride’s Crossing” by Tina Howe (at the Old Globe Theatre, through March 2), Cherry Jones sounded faintly panicked. “It’s a very daunting script,” she said earnestly. “It’s big and hard, and technically speaking, I don’t know how the hell you do this play.”
The piece “is” big, not to mention new and complex, and Jones was looking at a mere 3 1/2 week rehearsal period. She’s onstage almost the entire play, and, with virtually no transition time, jumps back and forth from age 91 to age 10, 15, 20, and 30. The crusty, humorous, unnervingly honest and often irrational Mabel Tidings Bigelow is looking back on her life, what led up to and followed her 1928 world-record-breaking swim across the English Channel. Seven actors play nineteen characters: the father who diminished her, the mother who ignored her, the brothers and lovers who helped her swim against the tide and times. The culminating croquet game defies age and infirmity, reaffirming life, lived intensely and well.
“It’s a challenge on every possible level,” Jones admits. “I can’t believe I’m going to be any good at it.”
She will, of course, be good at it, as she has been so many times before, garnering a 1991 Tony Award nomination for “Our Country’s Good”, a 1992 Obie Award for “The Baltimore Waltz”, and last year’s Tony Award for Best Actress in “The Heiress”. New York Times critic Vincent Canby called her “a splendid young actress.” Jones is as down-to-earth and honest as the fictional character she plays; she’s unpretentious and thoroughly likable.
According to Jack O’Brien, who’s directing “Pride’s Crossing”, “you see this once a generation, women who are simply creatures of the theatre. Julie Harris, Stockard Channing. One of those women who’ll entertain us for a long time, and will change every time. When I first read this play, I knew it needed a virtuoso performance. Cherry Jones was the only person I could think of who could do it.
“It’s a magical play,” O’Brien continues, “with such range and resonance, especially for women, though it’s not just a women’s play. It will have a provocative effect on women of different generations.”
“She’s a remarkable woman and also an Everywoman,” says Jones of Mabel, an inveterate rule-breaker and groundbreaker who relishes adventure, even in her nineties. “I’m so in awe of the elderly. There’s something special about them, the way their skin hangs off their bones, that completely loose, gelatinous muscle in their upper arms, the cool flesh, even in summertime. I love their stories and where their minds take them. My awe will either help me with this role or be a big hindrance. There’s always a danger if you put people on a pedestal.”
In her early childhood in Paris, Tennessee, Jones lived with her great grandmother, her grandmother, her mother and her father, across the street from a hotel for the poor elderly. “Four generations of women, and a lot of elderly people. Just like in the play.”
She knew, from early on, that she was gay (“I spent hours counting the freckles on Julie Andrews’ face on the back album cover for “The Sound of Music””), but it wasn’t something she discussed with her family until she was in her twenties. “I wanted to wait till my family had time to process it. My mother finally asked… Now, they’re happy I’m gay, because [otherwise] they wouldn’t have known Mary.” (Mary O’Connor, a New York architect, has been Jones’ partner for eleven years).
Over the course of her acting career (she’s currently 40, and has been onstage for almost twenty years, with brief forays into film and television), Jones has worked with some of the country’s finest directors: Gerald Gutierrez, Anne Bogart, Andrei Serban, Robert Falls, George C. Wolfe, Lisa Peterson, Carey Perloff, Michael Greif. “If I’ve been typed, it’s been for strong, intelligent women, who usually take an amazing personal journey. I don’t see myself like that, except at five minutes of eight every night.”
She’s primarily cast as the heroine, the centerpiece. “You’re like an arrow shot from a bow,” she explains, in a typically colorful turn of phrase. “You have to stay absolutely focused, lean and clear, keep moving forward. Because I never leave the stage, I miss out on some of the camaraderie of theatre. I’m not in the green room hanging out. My only relation with my fellow actors is onstage… I have great respect for character actors. I’m going to have to acquire the skill of instant focus… I’d love to do more fun, quirky little parts in movies.”
Jones plays a mute in the forthcoming independent film, “The Tears of Julian Poe,” with Christian Slater. She is thrilled with success, but she cherishes her anonymity. “If you play small parts in interesting films, no one will know who you are in a pharmacy in Winnetka.”
But you might just recognize her on the beach in San Diego. In preparing for her role in “Pride’s Crossing”, she plans to swim in the ocean in winter. “I owe it to my character,” she says.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.