Cherry Jones loves company, so it’s fitting that she plays the proprietor of a bed and breakfast in When We Were Young and Unafraid. You won’t find the actress demanding her own dressing room, starring in a one-woman show, or refusing to talk to someone who recognizes her. She’s motivated most by a desire for connection, deep and true, with her role, the other actors, and the audience. Jones balances this yearning for communion with a sense of loneliness—yet none of it seems neurotic. She’s from Tennessee, with an old-fashioned forthrightness that distinguishes her work and conversation. After all, when she won the Tony Award for The Heiress, she became the first Best Actress to out herself by thanking her then-partner, Mary O’Connor. Jones did so simply, treating it not as a landmark, but the easiest, most natural thing to do. In similar no-nonsense fashion, she exposes her characters’ desires and shortcomings with neither elaborate techniques to distance herself from them nor self-congratulation.
The open-faced actor currently has her work cut out for her playing the emotionally shut-off Agnes. Playwright Sarah Treem, a writer and co-executive producer on House of Cards, endows Jones’s character, who’s forced to deal with other people every waking moment, with limited social skills. As a result, the actress not only has to master a steady stream of rituals as if they’re second nature; she has to alter her own essential transparency. This frisson adds a layer of tension to an already fraught work, which ambitiously maps out the personal and political crosscurrents navigated by American women in 1972. Agnes’s B&B serves as a clandestine shelter for abused women, and while trying to protect her young ward, Penny (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor), from the everyday predations of high school boys, she takes in a savagely beaten young wife, Mary Anne, (Zoe Kazan). Soon Agnes attracts the attention of Hannah an African-American lesbian separatist, made charismatically believable by Cherise Boothe.
Agnes is in her 50s. The three other women in When We Were Young are in their teens, 20s, and 30s. Before a performance of the play, I spoke with Jones about going through each of those stages in her own life and work.
You were Penny’s age in ’72. Have memories of that time helped you build the relationship between Penny and Agnes?
The first knowledge I had of a grown lesbian was when I was Penny’s age, in high school. There was this woman, she was very pale, with dark hair, and beautifully defined features. She was the student teacher for PE. I didn’t have to take PE because I was in the band. But I was desperate to find a way to talk to this woman because I had such a crush on her. She was the only gay person I’d ever met back then in Paris, Tennessee. I decided I was going to go to the National Speech Tournament. I’d won for my state in dramatic interpretation. I chose original oratory. I’d heard the PE teacher was active in her college’s chapter of the National Organization for Women. So I went to her and said, “I’ve chosen this topic. Is there any material that you can bring me?” And she did. It turned out that she was this radical lesbian feminist separatist like Cherise’s character in the play. The first thing she brought me was Sisterhood Is Powerful with this huge fist on the cover. All of this stuff—that’s exactly what Cherise is saying to me every night on stage as Hanna, and it just takes me right back. My oration, by the way, was called “Sex Role Stereotyping: Traditional Tommy-Rot.” Don’t ask me where that came from. But I won second in the nation with it and the only reason why was that I had a passion for that college student.
As for my connection with the other characters, I’m older and have come through all those different phases. That’s the beauty of theater. If you’re of a certain age, we all have some connections to each of these interesting characters. I shudder to think what my connection to Mary Ann is, but I certainly know there’s one there and it’s one I’d prefer not talk about.
What were you like at Mary Ann’s age, in your late 20s?
I was at the ART, the American Repertory Theater [in Cambridge, MA]. Those were my golden years. It was the only place on earth that would have let me be an ingénue. Had I not found my way to that company I don’t know that I’d be acting today. I don’t know how I would have survived in New York. I’d been scooping ice cream on 72nd street for about a year and a half after being fired from Barrymore’s because I was the worst waitress. I’d put olives in Manhattans and talked too much to the Southern tourists who would come in. But once I got asked up to the ART, I stayed 10 years. That’s where I learned how to act and where I learned how to concentrate. I can pose too much and I can stress too much. But there I learned the importance of just speaking. We did one show after another after another after another, with great directors, and a great company of actors. We got to travel. Summer of ’82 we went to Europe. None of us came from families that went to Europe. Tony Shalhoub. Karen McDonald, my dear friend. It was a magical time.
Did you have assumptions about yourself that were changed by the range of roles you played?
Completely. There were things I was a natural for, like the breeches roles. I felt very comfortable in those. But I’d also play femme fatales and all these other things for the company. I got to play Lulu in Yugoslavia. If you’re going to play Lulu [the ultimate femme fatale, played by Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box], that’s the place to do it. I was a rock star in Yugoslavia. Being a member of the company was sort of like being in army: You went and did whatever you were told. And in rep, you’re not always perfect for the role, but you do the best you can. It’s a joy because everyone in the company, their audience, they know you aren’t meant for every single role. So if you’re slightly miscast, there isn’t the same kind of pressure as you’d have in a commercial situation. You feel free to fail, which allows you to be better than you normally would. Also, in rep, if a production doesn’t work, it’s over in six weeks and you’re onto the next. In a commercial run, you may have to drag on for a while until the producers finally give up the ghost.
When you left in your 30s, you received some recognition, with your first Tony nomination for Our Country’s Good and an OBIE for The Baltimore Waltz. But your big breakthrough was The Heiress.
I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life living out of a suitcase, going from regional theater to regional theater. I was a workhorse, but then with The Heiress I became Cinderella at the ball, at 38. It gave people a sense of investment in me. I think because Catherine Sloper was such an underdog. With When We Were Young, I know half the ladies in the audience are waiting to see Catherine Sloper again. What they’re getting is as far from her as anything could possibly be. They’re so kind. I often get entrance applause. But I wish audiences understood how much most actors hate entrance applause, because it immediately breaks the fourth wall and all we’re trying to do is create a reality. But I’m grateful and lucky to have such amazing roles. The Heiress let me work in New York City through my 40s. And then Doubt came along, which has allowed me to work here in in New York City in my 50s. And Glass Menagerie will hopefully let me work here in my 60s.
Those three all had long runs. What’s the difference between doing that and limited engagements like When We Were Young?
I think it’s Laurence Olivier who said, “It’s not how well you know a part, but how long.” I don’t worry about getting stale because I have an advantage as an actor. I really don’t know what comes next. I did Doubt for almost a thousand performances and I still didn’t know what came next. If someone else on stage gets in trouble with their lines, I’m the last person to be able to help.
In the longer runs, you get to slowly make these paintings in your mind of a character’s past so at each performance you can reach out further into the stratosphere of your character. As Amanda in Glass Menagerie, I created such a life. When I’d be out on the fire escape with Zachary Quinto as Tom, I’d say, “A fire escape landing’s a poor substitute for a porch.” As the scene would go on, I’d look off in the distance remembering what the view was like from that porch. Coming from that part of the world, at dusk when the sky was that magic color and the crops would be getting high off in the fields, there would be a mist that always comes over the low lying lands in the south and I could see the buggy coming. Tom says at the start, “The play is memory.” And as an actor you always have to write your own memories.
You have to go so far beyond the script to create a life. It’s got to be that specific. I’m not what you’d call an abstract thinker, but I have an imagination. You have to ask questions like a detective would. Every once in a while someone who’d seen Glass Menagerie would ask me, “Do you really think she had 17 gentlemen callers?” There’s no question in my mind: absolutely. I have a feeling her father was an alcoholic and left her family, just as her husband would eventually. And I think she and her mother moved in with two elderly great aunts who had just a few little pieces of silver left over from “befow-ah the waw-ah [before the war]” and they were able to buy a couple of cotillion dresses and send her out to get herself the son of a planter. And I think those boys on a Sunday afternoon loved to flock over there to Amanda and her great aunts’ little house because there was no father there to lord it over them; the women adored them; the sherry would come out at about four o’clock; and Amanda was fun and odd and different from the other girls. And I’m sure seven of the 17 were gay and just loved to look at the pretty sons of planters. If you think of it all that way, it really does become fun. You become a kind of writer yourself. And I didn’t necessarily know that when I was younger at the Rep.
How has it been to make the transition from a classic role in a classic play to the first production of a new play?
What was most different coming from Tennessee to Treem is he writes these paragraph-long sentences and most of my sentences as Agnes are four words long. You know nothing about this woman. And she ain’t going to give nothing away. Not talking like that. So it’s been interesting because often characters who don’t say much are usually able to show what’s inside. But Agnes can’t even do that. I guess it’s the most closed-down character I’ve played before. That’s why I so love those scenes with Hannah because she delights Agnes increasingly, so you get a little glimpse of this woman.
The play’s intriguing. You don’t know quite what’s going to happen next because no one’s squeaky clean. Mary Anne the poor little victim is a messy character. And Agnes is enigmatic. She went out into the world in the most aggressive way possible as a field nurse. She fought not just in one, but two wars. Now she’s retreated to protect Penny, but she can’t help but stay active to save lives. She’s encouraging these women to come into this safe haven she’s created, which immediately makes it no longer safe: Anyone looking for those women could come bursting through the door with a shotgun. When we started, I made Agnes slightly lighter. Our director, Pam MacKinnon, let me know I needed to go to a more in-charge place. Agnes has gone back to that World War II nurse, which really was my first instinct. I love making a 180-degree adjustment. Now when you get something in that final monologue about the mother of the child, you’re hungry for some little tidbit about this woman.
To what degree do you rely on your directors?
I’m worthless as an actress without a great director and great language. I would not have been that granite monolith as Sister Aloysius in Doubt had it not been for [director] Doug Hughes. I would have wanted the audience to understand her a little more. I would have wanted the audience to see into my inner soul. He kept on me. The more sure and more granite he got me to become, the more a certain amount of the audience absolutely believed in her certainty. And part of the audience believed in Father Flynn’s innocence. And the middle ground had doubt. Doug got that play in a way that I don’t know John Patrick Shanley did. I don’t think playwrights ever truly understand the universality of what they’ve written because it’s so specific in their minds. Sometimes it takes a great director to appreciate the largeness of the ideas of a play.
You’ve talked about 24 having afforded you the time to care for your parents at the end of their lives. Has your connection to the work changed now that you’ve entered a new phase of your life?
I remember someone telling me years ago when I was quite young and thought my life was so complicated, “Older actors’ lives are immensely more complicated.” Either you have the resources and reserves to deal with it or you don’t, because you’re dealing with the deaths of your parents, the deaths of friends now starting to come in waves, the fear of learning lines, of having them stick, fear of health issues and all of that. Just knowing the one hundred thousand people whom you’ve met and loved and acquired through your life. I said to my darling new cast, “In a few months from now, if I see you and don’t know your name, it’s not that I don’t love you and know who you are: I just won’t necessarily be able to remember your name. It’ll come, but maybe not immediately.”
At 57, every part I get I’m so grateful for, because this is a rough age. If I were a teenager, I’d be 13 or 14 right now—that awkward age when you’re not quite a kid, not quite an adult. I’m not quite a leading lady anymore, nor am I the “babushka” who carries the samovar [in a Chekhov play], which is what I’m really moving toward now. I tell every young director, “I’ll carry the samovar. In another few years, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.” I’m also learning at this age. The roles are different than anything before. It’s like being back in the rep. I’m thinking, “Okay. What is this age group of women going to be like?”
In New York City, having been allowed to do as many things as I’ve done here, it does sometimes almost feel like I’m a member of a rep company because I run into people on the street all the time who saw this or that or the other and I realize we have been going through life together. They’ve gotten to see a lot of what I’ve done and it feels like the way it used to feel walking around Cambridge when people had seen me in three of ART’s shows that season. That’s why I so prefer theater to TV because there’s just such an intimate…I know from the way someone looks at me on the street whether they know me from 24 or The Baltimore Waltz. It’s just a very different experience.
Did you enjoy doing 24?
I loved it. 24 was the perfect thing for me at that point in my life. But I ended up staying longer than I meant to. My body ached for the theater. Television, if you’ve got enough training and you’re a secondary character, it’s just too easy. It doesn’t demand enough of you, not if you’ve been used to great theater. I understand why all these TV actors come to the theater. Bryan Cranston must be having the time of his life. And he played an unbelievably demanding role on his TV series. But even so, it’s completely different from this. He must be in heaven. For me, being back in New York, I just want to do stage. I’m so glad to be home. I can’t tell you.
With the recognition from stage and TV, are there projects you’re trying to steer…
I don’t work that way. I find it’s better for me if someone else has the idea and invites me to the party. I’m not a producer. I depend on others for work. I have no desire to do a one-woman show, ever. I understand why it must be pleasurable for people. It must be thrilling, as you have total freedom. I’m probably preventing growth in myself, but I just love the camaraderie. I’d be lonesome. With this interesting play, in this small theater, sharing a dressing room with three young women and a young man next door, sharing stories, hearing where they are in their lives; it’s the most thrilling part of the process. Life is short. So when this play’s over, I shall just enjoy life and my bicycle and the city in the summertime and trust that by the end of the summer, there’ll be some place for me to go with a script involved.
When We Were Young and Unafraid is currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club through August 10.
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