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.