Googling “Cherry Jones” and “luminous” produces about 35,000 results in 0.32 seconds. Allowing for duplicates and entries that have nothing to do with the actress in question, that’s still a lot. As a theater critic friend of mine once grumbled, “Aren’t there any other adjectives for Cherry Jones?” Apparently not.
The headline of this post is borrowed (not to say plagiarized) from “The Glass Menagerie,” the Tennessee Williams classic that, as its protagonist states at the outset, is all about memory. My ticket to American Repertory Theater’s production in Cambridge, Mass., was a belated birthday present. (Thank you, Maureen.) For me, any trip to the Boston area these days is a memory play of sorts; the city, right down to the subway maps, overwhelms me with flashbacks to the nine years I lived there and 25 of visits since, what I did there and with whom. So many of those whoms are gone now, making the memories bittersweet.
But one of them is Cherry Jones. In a sense, I grew up with her, though we’ve never spoken except for thank-yous exchanged over a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS basket. The record indicates that I first saw her onstage at ART’s home, the Loeb Drama Center, in 1980 as Helena in the company’s inaugural production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Mark Linn-Baker’s Puck, snarling at the audience from a ramp just off my left shoulder, stole that particular show. But I do seem to remember a rosy-cheeked young woman in a long white dress, sliding across the stage in a pratfall. By Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” in 1983, I was a confirmed fan.
In the ’90s, we were both in New York, she on her way to becoming a star on Broadway and off, I trying to do the equivalent at The New York Times. (She fared better.) I skipped her Lady Macduff, having already seen it in Boston, but I managed to catch her as a First Fleet prisoner transported to Australia in the brief run of “Our Country’s Good.” Then came “The Heiress,” and a richly deserved Tony Award. In the Times review, Vincent Canby wrote of “a splendid young actress who is new to me, Cherry Jones.” Later, when I smugly informed him that I had been watching her for 15 years, Vincent seemed envious.
The list goes on: the Roundabout’s “Night of the Iguana”; my beloved “Pride’s Crossing” at Lincoln Center Theater, now my home away from home; “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” opposite Gabriel Byrne. I saw a Saturday matinee from the balcony at the Walter Kerr Theater, which meant I was looking down at the top of her head, but just listening to her speak Eugene O’Neill’s words was sublime. That was the occasion of the AIDS basket, and for a moment at the theater door, her light shined on me. Another Tony followed, for “Doubt,” and so did “Major Barbara” and “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” at the Roundabout. Her level-headed performances as Hallie Flanagan in the film “Cradle Will Rock” and especially as President Allison Taylor on TV’s “24” — a welcome break on that male-violence show — were a delight.
So naturally I looked forward to “The Glass Menagerie,” on the same stage where I had first encountered Jones all those years ago. Time seemed to have come full circle when I was ushered to my seat, just about where I was sitting when Puck snarled in my direction from the ramp. But as the play progressed, it brought a slow-burning shock: Cherry Jones wasn’t luminous.
Or, rather, her Amanda Wingfield isn’t luminous. Amanda is, as Tennessee Williams wrote her, a faded Southern belle whose grasp of reality in Depression-era St. Louis is none too firm. She’s put on some pounds; the skin of her chest, as seen in the second act above the lowish neckline of an outlandish dress from her youth, is that of a woman in her 50s. So is her face, which does not glow, even under stage lights. It is matte, not glossy — the face of a women past her prime, who has nevertheless faced life and all its disappointments with a will, greeting each day and torturing her children with a determined “Rise and shine!” Seeing that face, drained of its light, is enough to stop the heart. We know Amanda has aged, but has Cherry Jones? Have we?
Then, after two and a half hours, the lights fade, the play is over and the curtain calls begin. Holding hands with two of her three castmates, Jones rushes forward, smiles as if this is the happiest moment of her life, and takes a bow. Once more, she is luminous.
Can she turn it on and off? Is it nothing more than an actor’s trick? I prefer to think not, but, rather, that the luminosity is inborn. What I know for sure is that, even in a truly dreadful play (“Tongue of a Bird,” the Public Theater, 1999), Cherry Jones spoke and acted every word as if she absolutely believed in it.
In the wake of rave reviews, “The Glass Menagerie” is rumored for Broadway this spring. To my mind, the ideal house would be the intimate Circle in the Square, whose form — a horseshoe thrust stage with all seats looking down at it — would highlight the reflections from the three performance platforms in the dark pool surrounding them. It’s the stage where I first saw Swoosie Kurtz, in “Ah, Wilderness!” in 1975. But that’s another story.