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Cherry Jones keeps life simple. Except when she’s a churchwoman.
“They hired a lesbian to play a heterosexual who no longer is a heterosexual (but) who’s a celibate nun,” Jones says about her role as Sister Aloysius in Broadway’s “Doubt.”
For the tour, which stops in Grand Rapids from Jan. 2-7, the thespian will reprise her Tony Award-winning role as the principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964. The nun suspects the young, fetching Father Flynn of improper relations with one of the male students and she steps in to single-handedly take him down. But anyone that speaks to Jones knows from her down-to-earth demeanor that she’s not as rigorous as Sister Aloysius.
“I gave myself a back story that was so personal and catastrophic in its result that the moment she sees what she sees she was on red alert. She goes to work everyday of her life,” Jones backpedals and continues, “She doesn’t go to work. She’s a nun; she’s always at work to protect the children by giving them a superb education, by making sure they’re on their path to their relationship with God, and by protecting them – every hair on their head – as long as they’re in her care.”
Sister Aloysius won’t be tweaked much for the tour, but Jones would like to believe she’s tightened the character by introducing subtleties that she thinks were lost in larger houses.
“You hope that a certain gesture or a certain glance or a certain turn away will give the audience a clue to character that will read in the back row of a 2,800 seat house,” she admits from her New York apartment where she’s in the process of unpacking and then repacking.
The bonnet, which she’s worn 452 times on and off Broadway, was initially going to be replaced with a puffier and less tattered one from actress Eileen Atkins, who replaced Jones on Broadway in January. But after careful consideration, Jones chose her own “little, sad bonnet.”
Sarcastically, Jones adds, “Oh, it’s fantastic! One of the great costumes of my life.”
Critics have hailed Jones’ role as brilliant, extraordinary and divine, but she’s quick to note this isn’t a one-woman show as she gushes over the other actors.
“I’m not doing one of those nice leading ladies things,” she spills, laughing. ” … We’re having an incredible time together and accolades could never pile on the pressure that could be even close to the pressure that most of us just pile on ourselves as performers.”
Jones clings closely to modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s quote – framed and hanging in her apartment – that reads: “Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction … ”
Though Jones has sashayed through stage and screen since the early ’80s (when she also publicly came out), her insecurity hasn’t been curbed. But, while each media has its own quirks, there’s more pressure on stage. There’s no room for error.
During the hour-and-a-half “Doubt” run, though, Jones gets to feed off the audience and never break back into reality. Although the production tackles a serious subject, it’s funnier than people anticipate, Jones notes. “Ten minutes into the play they lean in and they never lean back the rest of the night.”
With a role in the lesbian-themed “What Makes a Family” alongside Brooke Shields and Whoopi Goldberg, Jones has also worked with Hollywood heavyweights like Julia Roberts (“Erin Brockovich”) and Mel Gibson (“Signs”), before his drunken tirade.
When she shot the sci-fi film, Jones, who played a cop, introduced herself as a gay woman (she’s currently linked with Sarah Paulson of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) and “he was nothing but kind and polite.” She only spent a few days with Gibson and she, like many other actors, wouldn’t be inclined to work with him again unless he made profound attempts to mend his wounds.
“I don’t ever like to rule out anyone as an artistic comrade but I would not feel comfortable working with him until I see his attempts to return to the community,” she confesses.
Jones isn’t fond of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Most times she’ll ride or walk to work. For her 50th birthday last month she received a fold-up bicycle from a friend. “I’m just a one-track horse … Even my life, as simple as it is, is often far too complex,” she laughs.
The same old touring grind, despite the way it seems, actually fits her humble lifestyle as much as Graham’s quote does her artistic insecurity: unpack, perform a slew of shows, say farewell to new friends, pack up.
Jones cackles, “It’s a little bit like being in the circus.”
“Doubt”, Jan. 2-7, DeVos Hall, Grand Rapids