Cherry Jones is too modest to dwell on the star-making reviews she has collected for her performance in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of The Heiress. “The real story,” says Jones, “is that this is the year of women on Broadway: Mary Alice, Gloria Foster, Mercedes Ruehl, Kathleen Turner, Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren, Laurie Metcalf—and me!” As she talks about her career over coffee and a hastily smoked cigarette, this warm and unpretentious actress seems genuinely surprised to find herself starring in a hit play “uptown,” as she refers to Broadway.
Still, Jones admits with a laugh that she has read the reviews. “I thought I was hallucinating,” she says of John Simon’s rave, which declared that her “long-shining, awesome talent should finally be obvious to even the most dense.” As Catherine Sloper, the painfully shy title character who is betrayed by those closest to her, Jones grabs the heart. She seems to undergo a life change in full view of the audience, gaining strength from adversity.
“People love a transforming heroine,” the actress says, adding that The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 dramatization of the Henry James novel Washington Square, is “a real Broadway play. As Gerald [Gutierrez] has directed it, it’s like a spider web—the audience gets drawn in quickly, and they’re not released until the curtain call.”
Jones speaks about theater with a love and enthusiasm remarkable in a performer who has worked in relative obscurity for 17 years. Her dressing room table includes a framed photograph of her idol Colleen Dewhurst. A photo of Helen Mirren is taped to the wall near Catherine Sloper’s wardrobe of 19th-century gowns. Jones’s closest friends are young theatre professionals such as actress J. Smith Cameron (her co-star and fellow Tony nominee for Our Country’s Good in 1991), playwright Jon Robin Baitz and actor/director Joe Mantello (Love! Valour! Compassion!).
“I feel as if my generation has finally arrived,” says Jones, whose regional theatre credits include everything from Hannah Jelkes in The Night of the Iguana (her favorite role) to Viola in Twelfth Night. “We have the voice and the talent to make the legitimate theatre uptown come alive again. It’s a very exciting time.”
Jones grew up in the western Tennessee town of Paris and began acting when she was very young. “I was a poor student, but from the time I was three, my grandmother, Thelma Cherry, told me that I was going to have a career on the stage,” recalls Jones, who was given her mother’s maiden name. “My grandmother died when I was a senior in high school, but I’ve been thinking of her a lot, because this play is the epitome of what she wanted for me! She would be thrilled.”
Encouraged by her family and a high-school drama teacher, Jones left Tennessee for the acting program at Carnegie-Mellon University, then moved to New York. She travels from her Greenwich Village apartment to the theatre on an ancient bicycle and says she has never aspired to movie stardom. “As an actress, you want to do everything you can, but I’ve been single-minded about the stage,” she says. “I’ve worked with extraordinary people, and I feel very fortunate.”