- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

Across the country, Cherry Jones is plunging many audience members into a cold sweat. And she couldn’t be more pleased. “People are constantly com-ing up and telling me that my character, Sister Aloysius, is bringing back nightmares of nuns and Catholic school. I’m astounded that a Methodist from Paris, Tenn., is capable of having that effect,” says Miss Jones, a distinct measure of pride tingeing her voice during a phone interview from Minnesota, where she is appearing in the touring production of the Tony Award-winning play “Doubt.” John Patrick Shanley’s incisive and shattering drama about a resolute nun who suspects a charismatic Catholic priest of sexually abusing the school’s students will play the National Theatre for a two-week run beginning Tuesday.

Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, “Doubt” takes a sharp, brave look at speaking the truth, grappling with uncertainty, and confronting the compromises that erode our lives.

Miss Jones won a Tony for the role of Sister Aloysius, the ruler-spined grammar school principal whose ferocious protective instinct causes her to stare down the Catholic Church and her own relationship with God.

Set in the Bronx in 1964, “Doubt” casts Miss Jones as a staunch disciplinarian forced to dawdle in the gray areas.

Those used to Miss Jones as a radiantly physical presence onstage (as seen in her Tony-winning turn as the genteelly bruised Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress” and the earthy sensuality of her performances in “Night of the Iguana” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten”) may need a moment to adjust to the sight of her bivouacking in a billowing habit with severe horn-rimmed glasses and a black bonnet so stiff it makes you want to sit up straight and reply, “Yes, Sister.”

“The costume does half the job for me,” she says. “The habit, the undergarb, the glasses, and the rosary beads — I put my hands under the capelet and away I go.”

As grateful as Miss Jones is for the specificity of the costume, it is not without its price. “I have a permanent mark on my neck from the ribbon on my bonnet, which I tie really tightly to give me that double chin,” she says. “But I have to say, overall, it is actually very freeing. You understand why women might appreciate a burqa once in a while, something that turns you into an asexual creature.”

Widely known in theater circles for her work ethic and attention to detail, Miss Jones looked to her family for physical clues on how to play Sister Aloysius. “I thought of my grandmother and all of those great matrons of the past,” she says. “We’ve lost that discipline, that granite will and the tough love. Soft love is just easier.”

Miss Jones notes that Mr. Shanley wisely made her a widow, so she wasn’t someone who entered the convent an unworldly girl. “She knows about sexuality from personal experience. I play her as if she suffers from osteoporosis, which is a tribute to my grandmother. “And I didn’t want her to have that stereotypical, Mother Superior ramrod posture.”

Other shadings were added, including a raspy, gravelly voice that sounds more teamster than woman of the cloth, which she admits was inspired by hearing a radio interview with Mother Teresa. “She sounded like an Albanian truck driver.”

The physical characteristics clicked into place allow Miss Jones to probe the calloused recesses of Sister Aloysius’ heart and mind night after night. “This is the longest I’ve ever played a character, and I wanted to do the tour because I just couldn’t let her go just yet,” she said. “It is intoxicating, the way this straight drama engages an audience.” Miss Jones notes that Mr. Shanley believes the second act of this one-act play is the audience discussing it hours and even months after it ends.

People have confronted her throughout the Broadway run and tour, demanding to know who is right, the nun or the priest. “The demographics usually go along two lines — elderly Jews who think Sister Aloysius is Joe McCarthy on a witch hunt or mothers who are protective of children at any cost,” she says. “I wish I could see the show. I would like to think I would leave with doubts.”

Miss Jones wholeheartedly agrees with the playwright’s assertion that once upon a time, those who had doubts were considered cultural wise men and women, whereas now it is a sign of weakness. “In my life, I’ve always been comfortable with doubt about God and the universe. I’ve always been agnostic, and I don’t know how anyone could know for certain about our origins.”

Since childhood, Miss Jones has always had a healthy dose of uncertainty, she says, “maybe because I knew I was gay early on, and in some religions I would burn in hell for that.”

Sister Aloysius, on the other hand, represents certainty. “She absolutely knows that she’s right, and I have to play her that way. There’s a certain security in playing a character so absolute and definite. But I hope that people see though her rigidity and intolerance to find her burning heart and her sole purpose to protect every child in her care to her death.”

WHAT: “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley

WHERE: National Theatre, 13th and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tuesday through March 25.

TICKETS: $38.75 to $78.75

PHONE: 800/447-7400

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