Cherry Jones enjoys strength of character in O'Neill play

January 03, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

It must have been a strange sight -- actress Cherry Jones' unusual method for memorizing her role in Center Stage's production of Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

"I was walking back from Eddie's market on Eager and Charles with five extraordinarily heavy shopping bags, trying to pump them to build up my muscles and shouting out this monologue, and the people who looked like I should have been afraid of them were shying from me," she recalled with a laugh before a recent rehearsal.

Despite this rather odd attempt at body building, Jones does not exactly fit O'Neill's description of Josie Hogan, the heavyweight heroine of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," which opens at Center Stage on Wednesday.

In the published script for this semi-sequel to "Long Day's Journey into Night," the playwright wrote, "Josie is twenty-eight. She is so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak -- five feet eleven in her stockings and weighs around one hundred and eighty. . . . She is more powerful than any but an exceptionally strong man, able to do the manual labor of two ordinary men. But there is no mannish quality about her. She is all woman."

Jones, on the other hand, is 36 years old, five feet eight and 143 pounds -- though working hard to bulk up some more. Her outstanding feature isn't her size, it's her blue eyes, which suggest warmth and a quick wit that is reinforced by her broad smile.

But while Jones may not match the physical ideal O'Neill established for Josie, the actress and character are a closer match emotionally. Specifically, Josie possesses two of the qualities Jones looks for in a role: She is strong and unconventional.

These are the same qualities that characterize the two New York roles that have brought Jones widespread attention in recent years: Her 1991 Tony-nominated role of Liz Morden, a fierce British convict transported to Australia in the late 18th century in Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good"; and Anna, an elementary school teacher suffering from a mysterious illness, in the New York premiere of Paula Vogel's "The Baltimore Waltz" last season. (The play was subsequently produced at Center Stage with a different cast.)

Judging from Jones' account of learning her lines, strength and unconventionality also appear to be traits of the actress herself. However, despite this anecdote, Jones does not take the role of Josie lightly.

To the contrary, the decision to tackle this part was an agonizing one. Over the years, Jones has had a sort of love-fear relationship with Josie -- a role she regards as the female equivalent of Lear.

"I've always had a great fondness for Josie because it was the first great theater event I ever saw. I was 16, and it changed my life," she says, referring to the late Colleen Dewhurst's acclaimed portrayal, which she saw during a pre-Broadway tour.

"It was the first time I realized that as an actress you could be big and strong and ballsy and powerful, and not only could you be that way -- as an actress you should."

At the same time, she admits, "I never wanted to touch this role. It was sacred to me." And when Center Stage's director, Lisa Peterson, first offered her the part over the summer, she turned it down.

Peterson, who directed Jones two years ago in a New York

Theater Workshop production of Caryl Churchill's "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire," recalls her immense disappointment at Jones' initial refusal. "I just couldn't think of anybody else," the director says. "So, when she called me [to accept the role] two months later, I hadn't done a thing to replace her."

Despite Jones' physical differences from Josie, Peterson was confident the actress was right for the role. "Cherry has this light inside her no matter what she does, and I think it was that that made it seem such a fine idea to have her play the part," she explains. "She has a huge soul."

In the end, the spirit of O'Neill himself won the actress over. After being cast in two off-Broadway comedies this season -- Ann-Marie MacDonald's "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)" which ended its run at the Classic Stage Company in November, and Paula Vogel's "And Baby Makes Seven," which opens at the Circle Repertory Theatre in April -- Jones decided O'Neill would be a good contrast.

Besides, she'd never done any O'Neill. "This is my 46th production. Out of 46 productions, not to have even touched O'Neill . . ." she says, leaving the thought unfinished.

Jones' impressive string of productions started with a turn-of-the-century feminist drama at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1980. But her attraction to the stage goes back to her childhood in Paris, Tenn.

"It was the classic kindergarten tap routine," she recalls of her first appearance before an audience. "Everyone applauded, and I thought, 'That'll do just fine.' " The daughter of a florist and a high school English teacher, Jones received further encouragement from her maternal grandmother, whose dying words to her were: "Act! Act! Act!"

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