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She's in L.A., Not Hollywood

Cherry Jones comes to town with 'The Heiress,' but she's not looking for great fame and fortune. You can catch her onstage at the Ahmanson (or perhaps trying to sneak out the back door).

September 08, 1996|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — Cherry Jones arrives for an interview just like one would expect her to: on a bicycle, her straight brown hair tucked under a helmet, her tall, athletic body attired in beige summer shorts and vest.

The intensely blue-eyed Southerner may have received the most rapturous reviews of the 1994-1995 season for playing the meek yet defiant Catherine Sloper in the hit Lincoln Center Theater revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz's well-worn 1947 drama "The Heiress." And she may have won all the awards that year, including the Tony for best actress. But even at that time she was determined, amid all the hoopla, to preserve her modest lifestyle--sneaking out the stage door to hop on her bike, leaving the crowds to think she was "some lighting person or other," as she liked to put it.

Eighteen months later, as director Gerald Gutierrez prepares to open his elegant production at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday, Jones is happy to reclaim her place as a journeywoman actress and primo storyteller, coming as she does from a long line of Tennessee talkers. And, indeed, she does seem to be as homespun and down-to-earth as the place she has chosen for the interview, a funky coffeehouse with wobbly tables and worn, overstuffed couches near the Greenwich Village studio apartment she shares with her lover, architect Mary O'Connor.

In his rave review for "The Heiress," New York Times critic Vincent Canby called Jones "a splendid young actress who's new to me"--despite the fact that the 39-year-old veteran of the theater already had by that time more than 50 productions under her belt, including a 1991 Tony nomination for "Our Country's Good" and a 1992 Obie award for "The Baltimore Waltz."

"It really was the mildest sort of fame, but it was still kind of overwhelming because I'd never had that kind of attention before," she says, ordering a caffe latte and a chef's salad.

Since "The Heiress" ended its run earlier this year, Jones has appeared as Hannah Jelkes in the revival of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" on Broadway and has just finished filming a featured role in "The Tears of Julian Poe," in which she plays the mute guardian of the lead character, portrayed by Christian Slater. She was reprising her role in "Iguana," which she'd played three years before at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and she found that experience helpful as she prepares to return to "The Heiress."

"It's a lot harder to re-create than to create a role," says Jones, betraying trepidation at expectations surrounding the Los Angeles engagement. "The initial experience is like a love affair, the adrenaline is going. Now, the mystery that feeds you in the rehearsal process is absent, but I hope that we can make it even better, find even more to plumb for Los Angeles. For one, we have Donald Moffat playing Dr. Austin Sloper and he has such integrity and truth that it will anchor the production and force us all to be there in the moment. And then there is the infamous Gerry Gutierrez riding herd over all of us so that we don't turn in a performance from August 1995."

Not that the performances then were ever just chopped liver. Even five months into the run, one could hear a pin drop at the Cort Theatre as audiences collectively leaned forward to watch the painfully shy, plain Catherine become torn between two men: her adored father, the stern yet socially committed Dr. Sloper, who resents his bumbling daughter for being responsible for his wife's death in childbirth; and her one and only suitor, the charming and manipulative Morris Townsend, who has one eye trained on his quarry's breathlessly expectant face and the other on her purse.

The success of "The Heiress" took nearly everyone by surprise when it opened with Jones, Philip Bosco, Jon Tenney and Frances Sternhagen in the cast, because the story was so familiar to any aficionado of literature or late-night TV. The Goetzes based their play on "Washington Square," the 1880 Henry James novel of mind games played amid the gas-lit era of drawing room chatter and the clopping carriage horses of the American aristocracy. But it was the 1949 William Wyler movie, starring Olivia de Havilland, that brought the delicious muscular tale of male tyranny and a woman's revenge to the masses. Who would've guessed that a 1947 play based on an 1880 novel about the genteel New York society of the 1850s would have so captivated a 1990s audience?

"I think we can thank the artists who have the skill to make these stories come alive for us," says Jones, crediting director Gutierrez. "They know how to invigorate the tales so that it's not some dreadful, stiff idea of what life was like back then. We can feel our own flesh in those petticoats and starched collars."

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