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Gravitational pull

Cherry Jones has the ability to lure in an audience. For her, success has become a habit.

September 25, 2006|Charlotte Stoudt | Special to The Times

New York — "DID you ever hear Mother Teresa talk?" asks actress Cherry Jones. "She sounded like a Romanian truck driver. A really rough, gravelly voice."

Jones is talking about creating her superlative-inducing performance in "Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's taut, Tony-winning drama that opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre. In a rare turn for a Tony winner, Jones reprises her role as the formidable Sister Aloysius for the first three stops of the play's national tour.

"Your first image of a nun is that ramrod-straight posture and a strong, beautiful voice," she explains. "But that would be too much, too controlling. I wanted Sister Aloysius to be turtle-like. Her bones are brittle and she's really quite frail. A little Mother Teresa, and a little osteoporosis -- but her spirit is astonishing."

Not to mention admonishing. West Coast theater audiences will have the suspenseful pleasure of spending 90 rapt minutes in Sister Aloysius' office at a Bronx Catholic school in 1964. As the school's iron-willed principal, Aloysius must deal with her growing suspicion that the charismatic Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) has become too close to a young boy, who happens to be the school's only African American student. Meanwhile, Flynn is struggling to modernize an institution whose headmistress ardently believes that "Frosty the Snowman" is a hymn to paganism.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Cherry Jones: A story in the Sept. 25 Calendar section about "Doubt" actress Cherry Jones omitted the final city where she will be performing in the play. She will appear in the production April 3-8 in New Haven, Conn.

Rehearsing earlier this month in Manhattan with McGarry, Jones is in street clothes and sandals, glasses her only costume piece. Yet she seems to be wearing an invisible nun's habit, projecting a force of will that feels channeled rather than performed. A visceral, warm-blooded actor, McGarry fights back for all he's worth, but he might as well be the lone Chinese student facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square.

After rehearsal, prop glasses carefully folded and placed in a special box, Jones sits down to chat. She may have lost Sister Aloysius' flat Bronx accent but nothing of her indefatigable presence. The actress, who turns 50 later this fall, retains the athletic ease and immediacy of a teenager. She is all wide cheeks and mobile mouth, with luminescent, pale blue eyes that seem like portals to another world. Her face has an ageless look; with the smallest shift, she can move from Pippi Longstocking to Mother Courage.

There are great performers who hide in plain sight, in constant negotiation with the intimacy of being seen. But Jones is utterly, even blissfully, direct; like light, her energy takes the shortest path between two points. It is a physics of self irresistible to an audience, and one that gives Jones her unmistakably old-fashioned aura.

Perhaps it's because Jones hails from the hills. She grew up in western Tennessee; her father was a florist, her mother taught English. Cherry was named for her maternal grandfather, Freeman Cherry, a tall tale of a man who served on the battleship Arizona during World War I and worked as a boxer, a railroad man and a documentary photographer. "I didn't know him, but my grandfather had a real influence on my upbringing," Jones says. "He absolutely believed in human dignity for one and for all. And when you're born in west Tennessee in 1898, trust me, that's a radical thought."

Jones fell in love with the theater when her parents took her to see a 1972 production of Clifford Odets' "The Country Girl" at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. -- a fitting venue for the vocational call of Freeman Cherry's granddaughter. Founded during the Depression, Barter was named for its original "ham for Hamlet" policy of accepting farm produce in lieu of cash for admission. (The downstairs served as the town jail.)

"The actress came out to the lip of the stage for the final line of the play," Jones recalls. "I was on the front row looking straight up at her. And as the stage lights went down, they flared up slightly like they used to do, where the performer would have to stay stationary until the ghosting light expired. I thought that light was the last escape of her spirit. And I thought, ooooh, I want to do this."

Jones' first paying acting job meant competing with pork instead of paying with it. "I started at the Barn Theater in Nashville, in 'The Good Doctor.' It was a dinner theater. I made $80 a week, plus tips, because we also served coffee and drinks."

In 1980, after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, Jones became a founding company member of American Repertory Theatre, the Cambridge, Mass., theater known for its commitment to innovation and craft.

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