Cherry Jones: Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie Is a Role She Was Born to Play, but Resisted Playing By: Ellis Nassour
John Tiffany’s revival of The Glass Menagerie marks the return to the stage, after five years of TV and film, two-time Tony (with four nominations) and three-time Drama Desk-winner Cherry Jones, who it appears, is at the very apex of her game. She’s been hailed as one of the greatest stage actresses of her generation, been called "the high priestess of New York theater." Told of these accolades, Jones shrugs and laughs, "Oh, my! I’m just happy to be acting." That’s all this Southern charmer with the raspy voice ever wanted to do.
As beloved as she is for her theatrical roles to the masses, Jones’ is probably best known for her Emmy-winning portrayal of President Allison Taylor on 24 during the Day 8 season. Needless to say, watching her on TV and in films doesn’t compare to watching her onstage.
Unconstrained by a camera, she has a powerful sweep and amazing breadth of emotion (sometimes, as we saw in her Tony-winning portrayal of Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt: A Parable, often in the just one sentence). Of course, as Jones herself laughingly says, "its acting."
Some might disagree, as did a writer observing Jones in the 1995 revival of The Heiress, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square. Jones’ transformation from shy, socially-awkward Catherine Sloper, daughter of a cruel father to becoming self-assured and cruelty personified herself was masterful. Jones was able to call on something very special deep, deep down. That role delivered Jones her first Tony and Drama Desk.
Regarding 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 three hundred others concentrating on that tiny sequence to bring to life one moment.
"I love the language of the theater," she continues. "There’s a heightened, articulate, poetic language that I crave in my work that you don’t get in movies, even the best of them." There’s something childlike about theater, she observes. "You enter the fantasy. You wrap your character around the audience and you never forget the people in the last row of the balcony. You’re always on, even offstage in the wings or doing a quick change. You’re out there because you’re listening, watching, totally immersed, and involved."
Jones’ unabashedly says that theater is her first love, but she bursts excitedly, "It’s always good to put hay in the barn! I needed a job. It wasn’t like I wasn’t dying to come back to theater. I didn’t have a play. No one was throwing scripts at me. I was approaching my mid-, then late-50s – that fun age for an actress."
Upon exiting Doubt in January 2006 [replaced by Eileen Atkins] after10 months on Broadway and, prior to that, almost two-and-a-half months Off Broadway at MTC, Jones opened five months later in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, which ran three-and-half-months. Then there was the Doubt tour that September.
So, 24 was a financial blessing. After her season on the series, Jones hoped to be back on the boards, but that didn’t happen until late 2010 with Roundabout’s revival of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. "When we closed," explains Jones, "I hoped I’d get something for spring and summer, but there was nothing. When I was offered a TV pilot, I took the job." It was the psychological series Awake, where she played psychiatrist Judith Evans. NBC went forward with it for season, in spite of lackluster ratings.
But Cherry Jones is back and Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie, which director John Tiffany [Once], premiered last year at American Repertory Theater [of which Jones is a founding member], have her. "It’s the most incredible homecoming gift I could ever receive," she rejoices.
Yes! But, then, why was she reluctant to take on the role of Amanda Wakefield, the devoted mother, living in early 40s St. Louis in less than luxurious circumstances, vainly attempting to sell magazine subscriptions to help with household expenses, mostly contributed by her son Tom.
"This is embarrassing," she begins hesitantly, "but I lacked the depth and experience to appreciate the play for the masterpiece it is, and Amanda Wingfield for the utterly amazing woman she is. Now, into my 50s, a woman of a certain age, I understand what a gift it is. What a masterpiece it is, and a deeply emotional experience."
Tiffany knew Jones would be ideal and he kept after her. "I kept saying ‘No,’ ‘No!’ I told John I’d do any other role for him. He wouldn’t let go, finally hogtieing me into doing a reading, I couldn’t believe the beauty and power of the play. I was a goner! I squealed like a pig! It’s amazing that for a play over sixty-eight years old, it’s so fresh and contemporary. It’s been the most gratifying experience I’ve had in 30 years onstage. I’m enjoying playing Amanda more than any other role. I must admit, having such a role I feel as if I’m cheating. It’s an extraordinary gift."
She explains her resistance. "I grew up with a creative, practical mother, so I found Amanda kind of abhorrent, almost freakish and the play depressing. John has transformed the play into an exquisite experience." As an example, Jones points to how Tiffany has approached the role of Amanda’s crippled daughter Laura, who’s fascinated with glass animals. "He gave the characterization an eye that takes it out of total mundane naturalism and lifts it. Celia [Keenan-Bolger] isn’t just an actor posing to make you feel something. She’s an actor making you feel.
"Regarding Amanda," Jones continues, she’s a heroine. She’s crafty. Behind all that fluttering and lilt, there’s a woman on a mission. Its things like this that make the production extraordinary. We cry sometimes, because it’s heartbreaking at times. And we cry because there’re moments – and I’m not speaking of the acting, that have such artistic perfection that you cry from seeing something so beautiful. As heartbreaking as it is, the craftsmanship, the artistry makes it sublimely uplifting."
The Glass Menagerie is a 17-week limited engagement, set to run into January. It co-stars two-time Tony-nominee and Drama Desk winner Celia Keenan-Bolger; TV/film star Zachary Quinto [Star Trek: Into Darkness as Spock; American Horror Story (Emmy nomination), Heroes, 24], making his Broadway debut; and Brian J. Smith [The Columnist, Come Back Little Sheba revival].
Since the play has one of the most intimate quartets in drama, it’s not unexpected that the cast has bonded as a family. "I am so fortunate," says Jones, "to be with this amazing cast. Their artistry is wonderful. The four of us are now joined at the hips. Zachary [Tom], Celia, and Brian [the Gentleman Caller] are so dear. They’ve sent me messages addressed ‘Dear Mama.’ That’s been a special for me, as a childless spinster. Since I’m the oldest, I sometimes feel like their mama!"
Celia Keenan-Bolger, who portrays Laura, says of Jones, "Cherry is giving the performance of her career. It’s giving, loving, and strong. She might be her mother’s daughter more than she knows. Cherry has an interior light that’s much stronger than her exterior light."
The Glass Menagerie is greatly influenced by Tennessee Williams’ life – more closely than any of his plays. He was born in Mississippi, but spent his young adult life in St. Louis, where he’s also buried. His name is Thomas, and he was called Tom. His mother, Edwina, cared for his sickly, mentally unstable older sister Rose and was worried what type of life she’d have after she was gone. [She was institutionalized and subjected to a botched lobotomy, which left her incapacitated.]
Of her return to New York and Broadway, Jones says, "I certainly enjoyed aspects of Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place, but I’ve been trying to get home for the better part of five years. Now that I’m back, I’m not going anywhere. I’m really not. Amanda Wakefield in The Glass Menagerie is the perfect homecoming. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. It doesn’t get better than this! I’m the luckiest actress in the world!"
Jones, known for her avid cycling no matter the weather, adds, "L.A. isn’t bicycle-riding country. That’s another reason I’m happy to be home."
At the end of the engagement, Jones will co-star in Roundabout’s premiere of When We Were Young and Unafraid, by Sarah Treem (co-adaptor/co-producer of Netflix’s House of Cards, and the series In Treatment), to be directed by Tony and Drama Desk winner Pam MacKinnon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? revival, Clybourne Park).