Cherry Jones Interview

By Jeff Walsh

In Doubt, Cherry Jones delivers an amazingly nuanced role as a nun that is convinced a priest behaved improperly with a young boy, despite not actually seeing anything incriminating. She just feels in her bones that what happened was inappropriate and has no ability to think otherwise. The play uses this exchange to question how we know what we know. In an age of polarization, how do we see with such certainty and, if that is the case, what chance is there to move forward if neither side questions their beliefs.

Doubt is a small show asking big questions. With a cast of four, it has an agility and focus to it that a larger show wouldn't allow. While the potentially pedophilic priest is an easy target, the show is just using that example to raise other questions.

Doubt, which one the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005, is touring the United States with Jones reprising the role that earned her a second Tony Award as Best Actress. Being somewhat familiar with Jones prior to the show (primarily through her film roles in The Perfect Storm, Signs, and The Village), when she appears onstage as Sister Aloysius, it is hard to find her there. The physicality of the aging, frail nun is pronounced, with a grating voice to match, burying any prior knowledge of Jones immediately. But despite all of the physical traits, the character still has a humanity and genuine warmth about it, if only because she is doing everything because she truly believes she is protecting the school children. There are no easy answers in the show, and it raises more questions than it resolves.

Having never seen Jones onstage prior to seeing Doubt in San Francisco, it was great to finally see this theater legend hitting the boards. Interviewing her a few days later, it was difficult to believe this sweet voice with its easy laugh transforms into Sister Aloysius every night.

What is this like for you? I mean, you obviously originated the role on Broadway. Is it a different experience bringing it around to all the different cities?

Well, it's different in that I don't sleep in my own bed at night and I get to see the country. That's how it's different. The play itself... the audiences, wherever we go, this play engages an audience more quickly and so thoroughly than any play I've ever, and I've been in the theater for 30 years. I've never seen a play engage an audience like Doubt. Like, ten minutes in, they lean forward and they never lean back the rest of the night. It's so amazing to see that. And it doesn't matter where we go. And, obviously, I'm talking about a majority of the audience and not 100 percent of the audience. You can't please all the people all the time, but it just has mass appeal (pardon the pun) and it's about something that really matters.

It's about how we judge others, how we proceed through the world, how we ... John Patrick Shanley writes in his preface for this play that when he was a young man, people with doubt were considered wise men and women. And now, they're considered weak because we all want to know what's right, and what's true, and we want to believe that we know what's right and what's true, everything else be damned. We've lost our ability to deliberate and to reason, as a nation and as a world. And we've got to learn to sit comfortably with uncertainty and with doubt again, and know that we just cannot know everything.

I was just pleased to see, and I think I saw the show like two weeks ago, just.. because that's a big room at the Golden Gate Theatre, and it was filled pretty much to the back wall with people in rapt attention. Normally the dramas here play the Curran, and that theater is more for the Mamma Mias with everyone standing up and clapping and dancing at the end. Just to see that much concentrated energy in a room even seems unique.

It's kind of thrilling, isn't it?

Yeah, but does that change your performance, the fact that you are playing to what is possibly two to three times the volume of what it would be in a normal Broadway theater?

Well, I'll tell you. The single most thrilling performance we've given of this play to date was at 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning in Los Angeles for 1900 high school students... and you could have heard a pin drop. And it wasn't because they were sleeping. It was just absolutely electric. They were listening, and you can hear and feel when it goes to just that ghastly hush, when there's just not a sound to be had, but there's a crackling electricity to that kind of listening. It's a real thrill to be onstage and experience that from an audience, and I'm sure it's equally rewarding in the audience, because it just doesn't happen that often. Especially during flu season!