Roundabout’s MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION is currently in previews at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, where it opens officially on Sunday, October 3rd.
Single, and Singular, Women Become Her
By CHARLES McGRATH
CHERRY JONES has made a specialty lately of playing iron-willed women. She was the terrifying, unyielding Sister Aloysius in the stage version of “Doubt,” for which she won a Tony. More recently, for two seasons on the television series “24,” she was Allison Taylor, the first female president of the United States, who stood up to the Russians and the crazed dictator of Sangala and had her own daughter arrested.
On Oct. 3 she opens in the Roundabout Theater Company revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” playing the title character, the self-made owner of a string of brothels whose daughter would probably like to lock her up, or at least shut her out of her life.
At a rehearsal hall near Herald Square recently, readying for previews that were to start last Friday, she and Sally Hawkins, who plays the daughter, practiced the climactic Act IV scene in which the break between the two becomes complete. The text suggests that Mrs. Warren has over the years acquired a posh accent, which deserts her in moments of stress, but at the urging of Doug Hughes, the director, Ms. Jones played her with the cockney accent of a street-smart woman who doesn’t pretend to be what she isn’t. She was vulnerable and sympathetic one moment, proud and stiff-necked the next. By the end she was slowly oozing venom.
“Another unmarried woman!” Ms. Jones said of her character after the rehearsal. “I’m never married.” Referring to her role in the 2006 revival of the Brian Friel play, she added, “Except in ‘Faith Healer,’ and he was already dead.”
Tall and handsome, Ms. Jones, 53, was wearing pedal pushers and a gray T-shirt but had kept on her high-buttoned Mrs. Warren boots. Her manner was not unlike her outfit: forthright, unaffected, a little playful.
“There are the girls who play the Heddas, the Noras, the Cleopatras,” she went on. “When I was young, I was Rosalind, Rosaura in ‘Life Is a Dream,’ Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ — all the pants roles.”
Ms. Jones, whose breakup with the actress Sarah Paulson briefly made the tabloids, has never been shy about her sexual orientation and didn’t hesitate to bring it up again.
“In part, maybe because I’m gay, there’s an androgyny there that serves me well and that I think serves a lot of performers well,” she said. “It makes us interesting onstage.”
About her roles she added: “I’m just not interested in the married girls, because it’s usually a woman trying to get out of her marriage, which I’m sure is interesting to play, but not something that’s ever appealed to me much. The unmarried girls have different struggles and different ways of dealing with them, and usually not the more clichéd feminine wiles.”
She laughed and said: “ That’s not to say I never want to play a married woman. But I think now, at my advanced age, I’ll probably segue into widows.”
“Mrs. Warren,” Shaw’s third play, was banned for eight years before it was put on in Britain in 1902, and in 1905 it ran for only one performance in New York before it was shut down on grounds of obscenity. As Shaw pointed out in a tendentious introduction, nearly as long as the play itself, it was all right to show prostitutes onstage in those days if they died of consumption but not if they were successful businesswomen.
By today’s standards the play seems pretty tame, however, and its revival history has been somewhat eclipsed by “Major Barbara,” which takes on the sexier-seeming issue of arms manufacture. The Irish Repertory Theater mounted a highly regarded revival of “Mrs. Warren,” starring Dana Ivey, in 2005, but the play was last on Broadway in 1976, with Ruth Gordon in the title role.
Mr. Hughes, the director of the new production, said that “Mrs. Warren” appealed to him, and seemed contemporary because it suggests that “terribly inequitable economic conditions produce a moral hypocrisy that spreads through a society, and people begin to take refuge in an upside-down world of false values like wealth and power.”
Ms. Jones said that her first reaction upon learning that Mr. Hughes, with whom she had worked twice before, wanted to put on “Mrs. Warren” was, “Oy vey.” She had seen a production years ago that was so chilly and remote that she walked out at intermission. She put off reading the play, the way she often does. “I think it was Judi Dench who used to get her husband to read a play for her and tell her what it was about, so I’m not alone in this malady,” she said.
But when she finally persuaded herself to pick up Shaw’s text, she was hooked after three pages: “I thought, ‘I could shop around for months or years before finding something as lively and delicious as this.’ ”
What particularly grabbed her was the intensity and complexity of the relationship between Mrs. Warren and her daughter, who has been raised apart from her mother, in ignorance of her profession, and who has grown up to be a “modern,” university-educated woman.
“She’s such a wily character,” Ms. Jones said of Mrs. Warren. “I kept wondering whether she has a maternal bone in her body. Does she really have maternal feelings for her daughter, or is this child just another investment she has made for her old age?”
Ms. Jones, who has no children of her own, has developed an admiring and protective relationship with Ms. Hawkins and with Adam Driver, barely a year out of Juilliard, who plays the feckless Frank Gardner. “I look forward to watching him in the theater when I’m in my dotage,” she said.
Much as Mr. Hughes, who directed “Doubt,” and its playwright, John Patrick Shanley, chose never to tell Ms. Jones whether they believed that the priest at the heart of the play was guilty of a crime, so she at one point decided she wouldn’t discuss Mrs. Warren’s maternal feelings, or lack of them, with Ms. Hawkins. “But then Doug reminded me that it’s not a matter of black and white but of gray,” she said, “and he said a wonderful thing: Perhaps she has those feelings but comes to them too late.”