"She is a heroine," Cherry Jones says. "I never thought of her before as a heroine, but she absolutely is. She was left by her husband around 1920 and has had to survive the next 15 years or so with little children growing up, with no support, out of her element. What in the world did she do?"
She "has been intrepid in her ingenuity, in her energy and her devotion to her children. Those characteristics are tremendously appealing to me. That she drives everyone around her crazy is the tragedy."
Jones is talking about Amanda Wingfield, whom she is portraying for the first time in American Repertory Theater's current revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, in Cambridge, MA.
Jones, 56, is one of the finest stage actresses of our time. A two-time Best Actress Tony winner, for Doubt in 2005 and The Heiress in 1995, she is a founding member of A.R.T. She won an Emmy in 2009 as President Allison Taylor on Fox's "24." Menagerie premiered on Broadway in 1945 starring Laurette Taylor in a renowned performance as Amanda, the middle-aged Southern belle living in her world of illusion as she hopes to find a mate for her troubled daughter, Laura. A Williams masterpiece, it ran for 563 performances.
The A.R.T. cast includes Zachary Quinto (Louis in Signature Theatre's Angels in America revival and young Spock in 2009's "Star Trek" and its coming sequel) as Amanda's son, Tom; Celia Keenan-Bolger (a Tony nominee for Peter and the Starcatcher and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) as Laura; and Brian J. Smith (The Columnist and Come Back Little Sheba for Manhattan Theatre Club) as her Gentleman Caller. John Tiffany, a Tony winner in 2012 for Once, directs.
Jones says she "never wanted to play Amanda. I gave away all my copies of the play at a certain point, once I was past playing Laura, because I thought I'd never have to do Amanda if I didn't have the play in the house."
But then, "John Tiffany sort of conned me into a reading. I jokingly said, 'This is the first and last time I will ever read this part. I'm happy to be here under that caveat.'"
Then she read it, "and I realized that I really, really know that woman. I'm not presuming I can play that woman, but I certainly know her, because I grew up in Paris, TN. I was born in 1956, and by the time I was ten all the women born just before the turn of the 20th century were in their late 60s or 70s. The choirmaster, the organist in the church — I could go on and on about these women I adored who had different qualities of Amanda. What they had was the style and the life experience of the age.
"I immediately felt this deep affection for Amanda. I thought then that maybe I should do it. Because there aren't many of us left who are the right age to play her who actually knew those women."
Jones says there's something special about Williams's language. "I've only done one other Tennessee Williams play — The Night of the Iguana [Broadway, 1996]. I said once that his speeches are like big huge bouquets with maybe too much baby's breath. You want to pull out the baby's breath, but if you do you destroy the intention of the bouquet. You have to embrace the baby's breath and learn to utilize it. There's a lot of extra in his speeches, but that's what makes it Tennessee."
(This feature appears in the February 2013 subscription issue of Playbill. Want to subscribe? Visit PlaybillStore.com.)