At Williamstown with Cherry Jones and Rogers Rees

At Williamstown with Cherry Jones and Rogers Rees Keeping Up With Tony-winner Cherry Jones
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Keeping Up With Tony-winner Cherry Jones

Whatever the weather, Cherry Jones usually rides to the theatre from her West Village (New York) studio on a one-speed, coaster break bicycle. As she bobs through traffic, her short, brown hair flying in the wind, Jones looks more like a carefree spirit on a lark than an accomplished, respected, and much sought after Tony-winning actress. But this summer Jones is exercising another way.

Jones makes her highly anticipated (since Roundabout's Night of the Iguana) return to New York theatre in November at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center Theatre's production of Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing, directed by Jack O'Brien, which Jones did to great acclaim last February at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, where O'Brien is artistic director.

But she's spending this summer far from midtown Manhattan, in Williamstown, MA, where she's starring through July 6, in Jon Robin Baitz's 1985 play The Film Society, which is set in 1970 South Africa at a private Durban boys school where a black minister is invited to speak. The play is directed by Roger Rees of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby fame.

Jones talked with Playbill On-Line during her break from rehearsal as she arranged wild flowers she had picked. "I'm walking!" Jones exclaimed, "Trying to get my buttocks in shape so I'll look good in those swim trunks. Fortunately, it's 1928 and bathing suits back then covered a lot more. Otherwise, I'd be in big trouble." Pride's Crossing is the story of Mabel Bigelow from her youth as a English Channel swimmer to her fiesty older years.

"It's amazingly beautiful here," Jones said of the area known as the Berkshire Hills, an artistic community in northwestern Massachusetts near Albany, NY. "I've been gone a lot this year -- doing Pride's Crossing at San Diego's Old Globe and two films -- and miss New York, but we're having a good time," she observed. "It's especially fun working with Carole. We did Stepping Out together on Broadway in 1987 (directed by Tommy Tune). I love her sense of humor."

This is a return engagement in Williamstown. "I did The Seagull here three years ago," recalled Jones. "It also had quite a wonderful cast: Blythe Danner, Christopher Walken, Gwenth Paltrow, Reg Rogers, Pamela Peyton-Wright."

Asked if Rees was a taskmaster, Jones said, "Since the first week of rehearsal I understood why he was cast as Nicholas Nickelby. I'm sure there were other actors with the RSC who could've done it, but he won for stamina alone. He was probably the only one who could have pulled it off. He has tremendous energy, focus, and commitment to the task at hand."

She noted that though they had met a few times, she never really knew him. Jones and her companion, architect Mary O'Connor, are friends of playwright Baitz and his companion, director Joe Mantello. "But I'd never seen this play or read it. Robby calls it a shabby real-life tale that's repeated over and over again throughout the commonwealth (of South Africa). It's not about the heroes or heroines of a changing, tumultuous world, but unremarkable people -- those that one day will lie in unvisited graves; people who struggle to survive with varying levels of conscience."

This is Jones's first time to work in a Baitz play. "It's so--so, I--I can't--," said Jones exasperated. "I'm realizing that it's virtually impossible to say what it's about." Amid the drama and upheaval, are there light moments? "Yes, but we're struggling to get those light moments because we only had three weeks rehearsal. We're going to be closing when we should be opening, but that's summer theatre."

Jones plays Nan Sinclair, "a wife who lives more through her husband, who's in a bit of a meltdown. He's lost to himself and to their relationship and she's fighting to keep him and the relationship alive. And to figure out what in the world is going on with his man she desperately loves but doesn't like much anymore."

That's one couple's small picture within the larger picture of the play, which concerns getting caught up in the politics of 70s South Africa. The husband is played by Baker. "He's just great," said Jones. "He was such a gifted comic in Matress, but this is a much more serious part. We don't get to have that much fun. And, I can't believe I've never worked with John (Benjamin Hickey) before. We've known each other through the years and done readings together, but this is the first play. He's just incredible."

Jones, who hails from Paris, in western Tennessee, a county seat of 10,000, made her first appearance in front of an audience at three in a kindergarten tap recital. "When we took our bows," she recalled, "the applause did me in. I said, 'Gee, this is great.' I didn't realize that the loudest clapping was coming from my own family."

It was her parents and a beloved grandmother who nurtured her desire to act. When she was 6, they enrolled her with a drama teacher. "After that, all I could think was theatre, theatre, theatre. My real inspiration for a career came the summer of my junior year (of high school) when I attended a six week theatre seminar at Northwestern University. At a performance of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Colleen Dewhurst fully definied my future for me. She opened a whole new world of what theatre could be. I'd never heard language like that before. I'd never seen a woman onstage that strong."

Her greatest acclaim came for her portrayal of Catherine Sloper, the dominated daughter in Victorian New York, in LCT's The Heiress. The role was "the culmination of all my experiences." She was rewarded with a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.

The award did open doors for Jones. Last summer she did a featured role in the soon-to-be-released film The Tears of Julian Po and right after coming home from San Diego and Pride's Crossing, she won a "meatier" featured role in The Horse Whisperer which stars Robert Redford.

In July, Jones returns to her Greenwich Village studio, her trusty bicycle, and work on the LTC production of Pride's Crossing. Reminded that the play was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize, Jones exclaimed, "That awful thing they did this year! It was unbelievable that they said who wasn't good enough to get the Prize this year. Just socially unacceptable behavior on the part of the Pulitzer committee. It was absurd to do that to Donald Margulies (Uncollected Stories), Alfred Uhry (The Last Night of Ballyhoo), and Tina. What was the committee thinking? I don't know what playwright in the future would want to risk that?"

 

Roger Rees Turns to Directing

Roger Rees isn't the easiest personality to tie down for an interview, which he considers a fate worst than going to the dentist. He made many excuses, even got sick after a rehearsal and took a nap, but finally relented and made the call.

Rees made quite an impact on his first visit to the U.S. in Nicholas Nickelby for the RSC and won the 1982 Tony as Best Actor. He received a 1995 Tony nomination for his portrayal of the devoted father with a terrible secret in Indiscretions. To the masses, however, Rees is probably best known for his recurring role as Robin Colcord on the TV sitcom "Cheers."

But even those who know Rees as a stage actor might be surprised to learn he began directing in 1984 at England's Bristol Old Vic. It was a year and a half stint "that I found quite interesting having come from the other side of the lights --and challenging. It was also rewarding."

He recently directed the American premiere of Seth Greenlaw's Red Memories for the New York Stage & Film Company. It was just after that, while starring for Roundabout in The Rehearsal that he received the script for Williamstown's revival of Baitz's The Film Society.

"Immediately, on reading the script," said Rees, "I found it quite absorbing. Now, of course, we know there has been an end to apartheid in South Africa, but what excited me was seeing it in the context of history. Of course, since we can't go back in actual time, its exciting to see the thinking and decisions of that time (1970) in today's context."

Rees observed that though The Film Society is set in South Africa, it could just as well be pre-war Germany or pre-anywhere where there is or about to be political upheaval. "But the play's more universal than that," noted Rees. "It's about people being tested in their everyday lives. These are people struggling to do the right thing and survive in their own world which they've created."

Speaking as a director, Rees explained he was blessed to have assembled such "a fine group of actors" for the revival. "The play requires six show-offs, but it needs to be acted well. One thing you notice right away is that it's a wonderful piece for actors. I couldn't have asked for a better cast."

With a rehearsal period of only three weeks and working actors coming to Williamstown from various other projects, "as beautiful as it is here, it's not all been picture perfect," said Rees. "It has all been silver service bearing tea and scones and working on the river. It's idyllic, but we've still had to work hard."

Told of Cherry Jones's comment about his tremendous energy, focus, and commitment to the task at hand, Rees is flattered. "That comes from a thrilling actress I'm delighted to finally be working with. Cherry is pleasant and I greatly admire the courage in her choices onstage. I'm glad we get on so well. She is one of the greatest actresses of her generation and her future will be bright, indeed."

Of his future, he is not giving up acting. Rees is reading film scripts and plans to do a movie soon. But in the fall, he will be directing again, "another insightful play" Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. The new play is Lynn Nottage's Mud River Sptone. When asked to spell the last word in the title, Rees accommodates and adds, "It's an African expression."