by Ellis Nassour

    KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES: Cherry Jones, that is, in a rare recent casual
    shot out of her Doubt habit; and with fellow-2005 Tony nominee James Earl Jones,
    co-starring in the revival of On Golden Pond.


    Having won the 2005 Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Actress, it will come as no surprise to hear that Cherry Jones soars in John Patrick Shanley's blistering Pulitizer Prize-winning DoubtÖA Parable, which has also taken home 2005 Best Play Tony and Drama Desk Awards.

    Jones portrays the now much-maligned Sister Aloysius, a strong-willed previously married woman in her 40s who's become an even stronger-willed nun and grammar school principal. The pyrotechnics of Shanley's drama begin when Aloysius announces her suspicions of a certain nature about a popular, street-wise priest, Father Flynn, played by Br"an F. O'Byrne, a 2005 Tony Award-nominee and winner of the 2005 Drama Desk Award as Best Actor. [He won the 2004 Featured Actor Tony for his performance as a serial killer in Frozen.and was seen as the popular, street-wise priest in the Academy Award-winning Million Dollar Baby.]

    Doubt, set in a Bronx grammar school in 1964, could be torn from recent headlines about the Church sex scandals. As the high-principled Aloysius goes about setting her trap for Father Flynn, fireworks explode and plenty of twists and turns keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

    In fact, Doubt's battle of the wills becomes a vicious cat and mouse game. Jones aptly compares it to "something akin to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral."

    Jones, who won her first Best Actress Tony for her compelling performance in the 1995 revival of The Heiress, received her first Best Actress nomination in 19991 for Our Country's Good, which featured an ensemble cast. The nominations were controversial that year because the Tony nominators failed to nominate Jane Alexander for her tour de force role in Shadowlands.
    Though honored to be nominated, Jones felt that Alexander had been slighted and felt that if she was to be nominated, it should have been in the Featured category.

    Amid the seriousness of Doubt, Jones points out, "I've found humor to be mined, not surprising since John Patrick is also the author of Moonstruck."

    The onstage confrontations between herself and O'Byrne, are meant to roil audiences, but, laughs Jones, "they seem to really enjoy them!"

    _____ DOUBT'S BATTLING DUO ______

    "You accusin' me?" asks Father Flynn, played by Br"an F. O'Byrne.
    "Yes, I am!" replies Sister Aloysius, portrayed by Cherry Jones.

    Watching actors Cherry Jones and Br"an F. O'Byrne in John Patrick Shanley's multi-award-winning drama Doubt, it leaps out at you that these actors not only love what they're doing, but that they live to do it. Their challenge is to plant uncertainty and divide audiences. Jones and O'Byrne do their jobs well are are being rewarded: Outstanding Actor Drama Desk Awards and nominations for Best Actor Tony Awards.

    [Shanley's play, already a Drama Desk winner, is also Tony-nominated.]

    Jones and O'Byrne accomplish their jobs well. In fact, their performances -- along with Shanley's trademark twists and turns -- are keeping theatergoers on the edge of their seats."It goes by so fast you don't realize it's ninety minutes," states Jones."It's like you step on and get off!" O'Byrne reponds."

    From the second the house lights dim," beams Jones, one of theater's preeminent actors, "audiences tell us they're completely engaged. It's because it's so much fun. There's not a single scene where you go, 'I hope this goes well' or 'I can't wait to get past this.

    She explains that the unexpected magic of Doubt is the uncertainty principle. She compares the onstage fireworks between she and O'Bryne as something akin to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. "They're meant to roil the audience, but they seem to really enjoy it. In fact, they feel the play is theirs and if there's a false moment they'd feel betrayed."

    "What's bizarre," adds O'Byrne, "is that when audiences are leaving the theatre, they're not talking about us, the actors, but about the play. It's become a very personal thing."

    Not so the audiences, says O'Byrne. "It's amazing. They've been divided. Flynn has his loyal supporters, who feel Aloysius has railroaded him. One will say, 'He's guilty!" and another will say, ëNo, she's guilty!'"

    "It's gotten so intense," laughs Jones, "that it's been suggested I might need a body guard when I leave the theatre! But what's really interesting is that those people who agree that Aloysius is right merely say ëFather Flynn's guilty,' while those who think she's wrong call her ëdespicable.'"

    O'Byrne even recalls one woman crying when someone said his character was guilty. "She said, 'You're nuts! How can you think that?'"

    Sister Aloysius, observes Jones, "is a formidable character. She runs her fiefdom with an iron hand. She believes in her methods and vigorously imposes them. Her instincts are everything; and when it comes to her suspicions about this priest, she has no doubt whatsoever."

    In the face of that, what she finds fascinating is that audiences are never quite convinced. "The unexpected magic of Doubt, says Jones, "is the uncertainty principle. Audiences are always divided. Flynn has his loyal supporters, who feel Aloysius has railroaded him. One will say, 'He's guilty!" and another will say, ëNo, she's guilty!'" She continues, "Audiences are leaving the theatre talking about the play and not about us, the actors. They argue whether I'm right and about how I could think such things of a fine priest. It's even been suggested that I might want to leave with a bodyguard!"

    It's what theater is all about, what makes an actor want to act. "You enter the fantasy," notes Jones, "You wrap yourself in your character and around the audience. And you never forget the persons in the last row. You must project to reach them. Even in your offstage moments, in the wings or doing a quick change, you're 'on,' ëout there.' You're always watching, listening, totally immersed and involved. And when you reach them, the play becomes a very personal thing. Nothing gets better than that for an actor. When that happens, we know we've done our job."

    The featured cast is also Tony-nominated: Heather Goldenhersh [Freedom-land, Last Dance] plays a younger nun who's quite intimidated by Sister Aloysius' methods; and Adriane Lenox [Shug Avery in the Atlanta premiere of the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, The Moon in Caroline or Change at the Public], who portrays the student's mother.

    She adds, "I'm having fun pleading Aloysius' case - especially the one about ball point pens, which she says should never have allowed to enter schools because they make students press down and end up writing like monkeys. No one has penmanship like someone who went to Catholic school! You can spot one a mile away."

    Jones and O'Byrne have supreme high praise for Hughes, who directed her in New York Theatre Workshop's Flesh and Blood and him in Frozen.

    Growing up Methodist in Tennessee, the Catholic Church, laughs Jones, was the most exotic thing in town. Her two best friends were Catholic. "I'd go to mass with them and they'd show me these little slivers of bone that were relics of saints. I used to wonder, with so many Catholic churches, if there'd be enough to go around."

    Frequently, she heard stories about the nuns. "Their fiefdom was the school system," reports Jones. "They were trained to be field marshals: discipline, order, rigidity. When I heard how they used clickers in church, I couldn't help but laugh. Click, you kneel! Click, you stand!"

    She remembers the time when young men going into the priesthood were deified in their communities: "But, sadly, once they were priests, they were never allowed a normal adult relationship with anyone outside the cloth who understood what they're going through. That had to do something to the soul and mind. We're sexual beings. I can't believe that eventually Catholic priests won't be allowed to marry. Otherwise, they're going to be beating the bushes looking for vocations."

    Jones and O'Byrne, from Ireland, couldn't be more different yet they seem cut from the same cloth. They've come up the ranks from Off Off and Off Broadway to starring roles on the main stem.

    _______ IN FULL POUT _______

    Jones in full habit: "I observed
    a lot of Sisters of Charity."

    [Photo: JOAN MARCUS]


    Jones' New York debut was in 1983 in Claptrap at the original Upper East Side home of MTC. There'd been small roles on TV and in films since 1986, when she hit 30. She made her Broadway debut the next year in Tommy Tune's Stepping Out.

    Numerous roles followed."Every play I've done," Jones explains, "has been exactly what I wanted to be doing at that point. I saw each as a step toward more options. Having worked in every different style -method, mime, you name it - prepared me for working with the various style of directors."

    Gabriel Byrne and veteran actor Roy Dotrice. O'Neill's raw story of tormented souls, Moon tells of the infatuation of James Tyrone Jr., the hard-drinking, self-loathing older son of Mary and James [of Long Day's Journey Into Night], with earthy Josie Hogan, a rascal farmer's daughter with low self-esteem. Written in 1943, it failed in a 1947 pre Broadway tryout. Wendy Hiller starred in the 1957 Broadway premiere. In 1984, a production starred Kate Nelligan. The most memorable revival was in 1973, when Jose Quintero directed Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards.

    She had another triumph in 1997 at San Diego's Old Globe and Lincoln Center as champion swimmer Mabel Tidings Bigelow, chronicling her from early teens to her 90s, in Pride's Crossing.

    Audience and critical acclaim and Jones' multiple awards for her brilliant portrayal of Washington Square's Catherine Sloper in 1995's The Heiress [opposite Philip Bosco, Tony-nominated this past season for a Best Actor Tony for Twelve Angry Men and who's appearing in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang] was the catalyst to getting good representation and scripts.

    On the basis of seeing her in The Heiress, Robert Redford cast her in The Horse Whisperer, in which he starred and also directed.Larger roles followed as Hallie Flanagan in Cradle Will Rock, directed by Tim Robbins; Erin Brockovich , directed by Steven Soderbergh; and M. Night Shyamalan's suspense thrillers Signs as a police officer and The Village as Mrs. Clack. Most recently, she played a dual role in the 2004 hit, Oceans' 12.

    She has roles in Swimmers and Aftershock, co-starring with Jessica Lange, both expected later this year.

    Prior to the opening of Doubt at MTC late last year, Jones had been absent from the New York stage since summer 2003 and her acclaimed performance Off Broadway in Flesh and Blood, Peter Gaitens' adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel about several generations of an American family. She was gone so long that some prominent guest starring roles on such TV series as The West Wing, many fans were worried that she'd gone Hollywood.

    "No! No! No!" she states emphatically. "I never expected Hollywood to come calling, even after The Heiress. I didn't know anything about film and never spent time in L.A. Movies and TV are fun, as long as you know you've got something to come home to. Theater will always be my primary focus. I'm not ambitious. [Evidence of that is that she passed on a role in Cold Mountain.] My agents are understanding. I never feel pressure to accept roles I don't want."

    Amazingly, in view of her success onstage, Jones hasn't ask her agents to go after starring roles. "Not many women my age [she's 48] are in the Hollywood mindset," she laughs. "Where I'm at, I have to specialize in nuns and FBI agents [Oceans 12]! But I love the low-pressure character parts, because I have the opportunity to watch and learn."

    Jones guiltily admits to loving the ambience of Hollywood. "I'm at that career point where I find these character parts in film delicious to play around with. But then to have this magnificent part come along in Doubt, well, is the icing on the cake. It arrived at just the right time because I was itching to get back to the stage. It'd been while since I went 'Ohhh!' after reading a script. So I jumped at it."

    Of film vs. theater, she states, "In film, you play a character. There's no projection. The camera's in front of you and the boom mike looms overhead. It's a world of fifteen-second bites. You have make-up and wardrobe fussing over you and 300 others concentrating on that tiny sequence. It's incredible to have all that manpower and imagination to bring to life one moment."

    There's something childlike about theater, she observes. "You enter the fantasy. You wrap yourself around the audience and are your character. And you can never forget the persons in those seats in the last row of the balcony. You must project to reach them. Even in your offstage moments, in the wings or doing a quick change, you're 'out there' because you're listening, watching, totally immersed and involved."

    As she reminisced about her theatrical career, Jones called herself "the luckiest actress in the world. "I've done so much more than I have any right to, then a part like Sister Aloysius comes along and it's just the topping on the dessert!"

    Her first appearance in front of an audience was at three in a Paris, Tennessee tap recital. "When we took our bows," she recalls, "the applause did me in. I said, 'Gee, this is great.' I didn't realize that the loudest clapping was coming from my own family."

    They nurtured her desire to act. "All I could think was theater, but my real inspiration came my junior year when I attended a theater seminar at Northwestern. Seeing Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon For The Misbegotten fully defined my future. She opened a whole new world of what theatre could be. I'd never heard language like that. I'd never seen a woman onstage that strong."

    Jones attended Carnegie Mellon "living and breathing acting. I was five-foot nine, a big kid! But I got character parts that helped me grow." In New York, "after slinging chicken a couple of years [as a waitress] and thinking I'd never work as an actress until I was thirty-five, I shaped up. I wasn't your classic ingenue, but was going to give it a try."

    She acted with rep companies across the country and Off Broadway until she found herself up and coming. "Every play I've done has been exactly what I wanted to be doing at that point," said Jones. "I saw each as a step toward more options. Having worked in every different style - method, mime, you name it - prepared me for working with the various styles of directors."

    Her journey led to Broadway in 1998, playing opposite Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson in Macbeth. "There was a great deal of turnover," she laughs. "In Baltimore, we performed at night and, by day, rehearsed the revised version. Glenda was generous and lots of fun. I ended most evenings in her dressing room, enjoying a tall glass of wine."

    Rarely, says Jones, did a role intimidate her, but daunted by her memories of Dewhurst, she turned down playing Josie at Baltimore's Center Stage. "I thought I'd never be able to do it," she explained. "I felt unprepared. But as the months passed, I said 'I've got to try. Miss Dewhurst would want me to.' The night after Miss Dewhurst died, I called and said I'd like to give it a try."

    Of her chosen profession, Jones says, "I wish there were more opportunities for those breaking into acting. Unless you give yourself completely, it's difficult. It seemed effortless, but it wasn't. I've been able to devote my efforts to what I wanted. Because of that, I'm not a well-rounded person. But there've been other compensations."

    ________ DOUBT'S TONY-NOMINATED CAST ________

    From Left: Adriane Lenox [winner of the 2005 Tony for Featured
    Actress, Play], Br"an F. O'Byrne [2005 Tony nominee for Best Actor],
    Cherry Jones [winner of the 2005 Tony for Best Actress] and
    [2005 Tony nominee for Featured Actress].

    [Photo: JOAN MARCUS]


    Monday, June 20, 2005 at 5:30 PM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.