CAMBRIDGE — A couple of years ago, the actress Cherry Jones and the British director John Tiffany were having lunch at Veggie Planet, the leafy green basement eatery in Harvard Square. Jones, who grew up in Paris, Tenn., had recently been cleaning out her late parents’ house, and she was reminiscing about the old letters and mementos she and her sister had unearthed. As she talked about Mother and Daddy — as she calls them to this day — her resonant voice took on the slow drawl of her childhood down South. Her memories seemed tinged with the scent of magnolias, jonquils, dogwoods, evoking a particular time and a particular way of life.
Listening to her, Tiffany was struck with an image: He saw Jones as Amanda Wingfield, the domineering matriarch in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” But when he suggested that he direct her in the legendary role, her answer was clear and immediate: “No, never, not that play.”
“I was never drawn to this play, ever,’’ Jones explains on a January afternoon, settling into a conference room at the American Repertory Theater, the company that was her artistic home for a decade before she moved to New York and won Tony Awards for lead actress in “The Heiress” and “Doubt.” “I found it cloying and . . .” A long exhale. “Everything about it depressed me. It seemed so specific to the world I knew. There was nothing exotic about it. I knew that world too well, and it depressed me.”
She eventually agreed to do a reading of “The Glass Menagerie” at the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop, with the attitude that it would be “the first and last time anyone will ever hear me read this play.” When Jones turned the last page, Tiffany recalls, she said, “When do we start?”
The ART production, featuring Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto as her son, Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as her daughter, Laura, and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, begins a six-week run at the Loeb Drama Center on Saturday.
Tiffany is known for new works, such as the National Theatre of Scotland’s celebrated Iraq war play, “Black Watch,” and the current Broadway hot ticket “Once,” which was developed at ART and won eight 2012 Tonys, including best musical and best director. But Tiffany readily admits that Williams’s first Broadway hit is, hands down, his favorite play. The 1944 drama is often viewed as the story of a fading Southern belle who tries to force her frightfully shy daughter to cultivate “a nimble wit and tongue to meet all occasions.” But Tiffany sees it differently. “It feels to be a kind of call to arms for people like Laura, people who are fragile, who are damaged,’’ he says. “It’s a call to arms that they should be allowed to thrive and survive in the world. We are the architects of a world that is ‘lit by lightning.’ There is something very dangerous about it. There is constant need for professionalism and capitalism. Where does that leave people who don’t fit in?”
When asked if he has someone in his life like Laura, a young woman as delicate and unworldly as the symbolic glass unicorn at the center of the play, he simply sighs and says, “Everybody does, doesn’t he?”
The fresh-scrubbed Jones now brims with compassion for the Amandas of the world, mothers of children with special needs who desperately fear their own mortality. “What happens when they die?” Jones asks. “What happens to those children? That is where Amanda is.”
That fierce maternal instinct is driving Jones’s portrayal of the character she describes as “one of the greatest heroines I’ve ever played — and one of the most annoying.” Amanda compels her son, Tom — a frustrated writer and a Williams stand-in, who narrates the so-called “memory play” with an air of guilt and regret — to find a gentleman caller who will care for her daughter. Yes, Amanda dolls herself up for the visitor, brings out the candles and the dandelion wine, and oozes with the kind of Southern charm that Jones knows all too well from her childhood. But Amanda has a purpose that goes beyond her magnificent ego.
“I know a lot of women in the South who have larger clanking balls than most of the men I’ve known, but on a dime can turn into the most intoxicating, seductive women,” Jones says. “It’s not just sexually. It’s intellectually. Amanda needs to be a little bit of a female Bill Clinton. She needs to make that gentleman caller feel like he’s the only man in the world. I think some people think she puts on that dress and pushes little Laura out of the way.” She pauses. “No. Everything she does that night is for Laura. That’s not to say she isn’t enjoying every little minute of it. But not for one second is she doing it for herself. She wants that boy to feel like he has wandered into heaven.” Amanda does this, of course, by piling on coquettish flattery and demonstrating what she calls “the art of conversation.”
“She never shuts up!” Jones says. The only time in her life that Amanda was speechless, the actress speculates, was when she met her husband, the “telephone man who fell in love with long distances” and abandoned his family. “I love thinking about the reality of what that must have been like. I think along came that man, and he just shut her up,’’ Jones says, her voice ever more tinged with her native accent. “And I think it was raw and hot and fantastic, and she was just a goner.”
Jones is the kind of actress who has a scenario for every line, every bit of business in a play. In 1980, she began her career at 23 as a founding member of ART, part of its resident acting company. She describes the theater as the place where she learned to act. “We were like puppies in a box,’’ she says. “We felt you could just throw any play at us, and we could do it.”
She eventually left for New York, and she did audition for the part of Laura in the 1994 Julie Harris production of “The Glass Menagerie.’’ The role went to Calista Flockhart. “I’m too big. I’m too sturdy. I used to joke that I could never play Laura unless Nancy Marchand was playing Amanda,’’ Jones says.
This is the first ART production of any Williams play. The creative team, which includes set and costume designer Bob Crowley, a Tony winner for his “Once” set, has disregarded Williams’s elaborate scenic directions for “The Glass Menagerie.” They are relying instead on the playwright’s introductory production notes, which call for “a new, plastic theatre which must take the place of the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions.” Jones is so excited about this notion — “It gives me goose bumps!” — that she pulls out a copy of Williams’s text and reads an entire paragraph aloud, emphasizing the part where the playwright bemoans the “straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes.”
As ART has acknowledged, there has already been commercial interest in the production, but Tiffany says he is working on it in the here and now. Jones says she isn’t looking ahead to New York or anywhere else, but she is harking back to her heritage.
“I realized that I have a responsibility to do this,’’ Jones says. “I’m not saying I’m going to get it right, but I have a good shot at bringing a valid portrait to the stage because of where I’m from. I knew women like Amanda. I knew, even as a child, that they were leaves blowing off trees, never to be seen or heard from again.”
And what of Laura, that fragile creature? What happens to her after the play ends? “For me, she ceases to exist,” Tiffany says. “I don’t mean that I think she dies; she just doesn’t exist anymore. She exists in Tom’s head. He doesn’t manage to escape her.”
Jones has another idea that makes the end of the play bearable for her, although Tiffany says that Williams would never accept it. She imagines a scene after Laura blows out the candles in the play’s wrenching final moment. In her mind, Amanda sends Laura out to charge some groceries at Garfinkel’s Delicatessen. “She falls down and meets this terribly shy young boy who helps her up and walks her home,’’ Jones says, her piercing blue eyes sparkling. “I told John going into this that I am giving this thing a full-blown happy ending. Amanda asks the boy to come in. Would he like some lemonade? Would he come for supper to repay him for his kindness? Laura ends up with a wonderful husband and children. There is a part of me that is going to go there every night. Otherwise, it’s too heartbreaking.”Patti Hartigan can be reached at patti