One Sunday evening while Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing was still previewing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in New York, a man in the second row crossed his legs and inadvertently kicked his cane, sending it skittering down the aisle and onto the stage.
At the time -- and for almost all of the play's two hours and 20 minutes -- that stage was the personal domain of an astonishing actress who ruled it with such assurance she didn't think twice about scooping up the cane and incorporating it into the action, playfully brandishing it at the domestics, chasing them around the kitchen with it and then returning it to the man in the second row.
That's Cherry Jones -- actress of the moment, in the moment. "I remember one night during The Heiress when a pyramid of Poland Spring bottles fell in the basement of the Cort Theatre. It sounded like a volcano erupting. Fortunately, it was in the lighter moments of the play -- and, after this long pause where we all thought the building had exploded, Fanny Sternhagen said, 'Thunder!' The audience died laughing. They'd much rather you acknowledge it than ignore it."
Jones is such an unassuming and committed artist she could delude you into thinking her grudgingly burgeoning success is also an accident, but it isn't. Talent has everything to do with it, as her galaxy of uncommon women attests.
Mabel Tidings Bigelow -- a spunky matriarch of Pride's Crossing, Mass. -- is the latest, a fascinating amalgam of fact and fiction that playwright Howe concocted by crisscrossing her own 89-year-old Aunt Maddy with Gertrude Ederle, a New Yorker who, in 1924 at age 19, swam the English Channel. "I don't think Mabel's that uncommon," opted Jones. "I guess she doesn't think swimming the Channel is that unusual. I love her line, 'Anyone can swim the English Channel -- all it takes is endurance.' Of course, it's that endurance that makes her uncommon."
It's clear why Jones jumped at the challenge of this role. What's not to love? "I kinda get to do everything," she confessedand at almost any age. Mabel is first seen at 90, then flashes back to 10 then on to 33 and back to 15 and forward to 60. The 41-year-old actress pole-vaults decades back and forth with the greatest of easeand without make-up.
The voice, especially, required work. "I started off with this horrible combination of Katharine Hepburn and Jack Kennedy because, being a child of the early sixties, that was New England to me. But then, to get the age, I used both my father's mother (who was a real character) and Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain. When I was 16, I did excerpts of his Mark Twain. That's where I got my earliest training for Mabel, but I think there's a lot of his Twain in her."
And a lot of her family tree as well. "I was born into a family of many older women and surrounded by elderly people all my life. To this day, I have many extremely elderly people in my family. My Aunt Carmen is 100, her sister's 98, another aunt just turned 90. When I was home last year, I knew I was going to do this play, and I found myself looking at them with an actor's eye. I had to stop it because I just wanted to be there and, through osmosis, capture them."
A woman of pluck who refuses to stay in her place in a world that rather insists on it, Mabel is sister-under-the-skin to Jones's most recent Broadway rolesHannah Jelkes in The Night of the Iguana and Catherine Sloper, The Heiress herself. Her heartbreaking portrayal of the spurned spinster in a revival of the latter won her "an embarrassing amount of awards. I didn't know there were so many awards in the world. The only one I actually kept was the Drama League Award. It was the first, and it meant the world to me. My Tony I sent to my parents. They have it on their mantel, and it's a fun conversation piece. They entertain more than I do, so it gets more of a show there than it would here."
When a newcomer strikes award gold, the accompanying whirlwind can be energy-sapping. "I was Cinderella at the ball, but it was a ball every morning, noon and night, and it was exhausting. You kinda feel ridiculous saying that because everybody has dreamed at some point, whether it's fourth grade or fifth, of winning an award like that. Then, all of a sudden, you find yourself in that position."
It speaks volumes for The Heiress's integrity that Jones and Gutierrez achieved their dramatic highlight in the dark -- the jilting scene when Catherine, realizing the suitor who was to rescue her from her father's house won't be coming, thrashes about wildly in the shadows like some deeply wounded animal. "I knew that scene would hold because it created such tension. The only moment when she actually moved into the light was at her deepest despair when the light was leaving her life."
That scene and the hardening of Catherine's heart that follows were flourishes of Ruth and Augustus Goetz, not found in Henry James's Washington Squareas those who saw the recent film version of the novel were surprised to discover. "Once Catherine returns from Europe, the Goetzes never look back at the novel again. They took it straight up that dramatic path toward melodrama so when they take you to this melodramatic top, they've earned the right to be there."
Given that, Jones admired the film. "It felt to me like a young America, that sort of claustrophobic attempting-European-airs-but-still-colonial-in-feel," she said. "I so appreciated what Jennifer Jason Leigh did with that role. She dared to be irritatingly awkward, which is a real gamble."
And wouldn't you know that Cherry Jones, who thrives in emotional high-risk dramas, would appreciate a daring gambler when she sees one?
-- By Harry Haun