When Cherry Jones returned to the American Repertory Theater in 2013 to star in “The Glass Menagerie,” she stole a moment alone onstage in the empty Loeb Drama Center. It was an intense moment, a homecoming. She had performed there night after night as a young actor and was now starring in a memory play. “It was profound standing on that stage where I grew up,” she says. “I could hear every voice. We are all ghosts on that stage, whether we are living or not. In the theater, you can still smell that sweat.”
In 1980, she began her career at 23 as a founding member of the resident company at ART and now, at 60, she is guest of honor at the 35th Annual Elliot Norton Awards, set for Monday at the BU Theatre. At the beginning of her career, she lived in a one-room apartment on Chauncy Street in Cambridge and rode her well-worn pink bicycle wherever she went. ART’s artistic director, Robert Brustein, had just been fired from his position as head of the Yale School of Drama, and he took many of his graduates with him, folks like Thomas Derrah and Tony Shalhoub, to found the ART. Jones was a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University. She was not one of the Yale bunch. But director Andrei Belgrader took a chance on the kid from Paris, Tenn., and cast her as Rosalind in “As You Like It.”
The company embraced her. And she was hooked. Instantly.
“My agent at the time said, ‘Cherry, you be careful because Brustein will get his claws in you,’ ’’ she says during a Skype interview from London, where a West End production of “The Glass Menagerie” had just closed. “I didn’t know what she meant, but I willingly let the company capture me. I was a happy captive for the better part of a decade.”
And she had quite the decade, playing various roles at ART from 1980 to 1990, with a year off to perform in New York. ART went on an international tour in 1982, hitting all of the major festivals, from Avignon to Edinburgh. “I never felt alone. I was with my family,” Jones says. Karen MacDonald, another founding member, was with her on that tour. The whole bunch went off to a famous restaurant outside of Avignon for lunch and overstayed their visit, enjoying a four-hour meal with many a bottle of French wine. They were supposed to perform al fresco later that night. The late Jeremy Geidt, the elder statesman of the group, said he hoped it would rain. “As we were driving back, the skies poured down. The rain gods were on our side,” recalls MacDonald, who is nominated for outstanding actress, for “Finish Line,” at this year’s Norton Awards.
In those days, the same troupe of actors performed in repertory, performing one play at night and rehearsing another by day. ART was home to many auteur directors, who put their stamp on classics. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But it was rarely boring. And unlike today’s ART, the resident company members lived and worked in the community.
Jones got quite the workout during the 1989 season, when she played Viola in “Twelfth Night” and rehearsed the title role in “Major Barbara.” “I have never felt more alive — or more exhausted. I got so skinny,” she says. “It was heavenly. It just kills me that repertory companies have died away in America.”
“Twelfth Night” was an adventure. Directed by Andrei Serban, it featured a helicopter, a police car, and a scene with Shakespeare writing in a gay bar while Thelonious Monk played the piano. Jones, who still retains a tinge of a Southern drawl, bursts out laughing. Serban was a tough taskmaster. “We used to say we wanted to kill him when he was in the room, and when he left the building, we were all despondent. It was like Stockholm Syndrome. We were his — lock, stock, and barrel — even though he drove us crazy. With Andrei, anything was possible.” A pause and a sigh. “I so miss the 20th century — well, the good parts.”
The five-time Tony Award nominee (she won best actress for “The Heiress” and “Doubt”) credits ART for launching her career. She performed in more than 25 productions there, and looks back wistfully to cherished roles, laughing at what she describes as some “wackadoodle” productions. “It was like we were in Brustein’s army,” she says. “He was the general and we were his troops. We took our assignments and went into the trenches. That is a terrible military comparison, but it was a joyful and creative encampment.”
She returned to the theater in 2002 to play the title role in the Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” which was Brustein’s final production before retiring. “I happily said yes,” she recalls. The only problem was no one told her it was a musical adaptation, and she is not a trained singer. And the company fired composer Alan Menken and playwright Larry Gelbart two months before the show was about to open. “It was the wildest production I have ever been in,’’ Jones says. “It was absolute bonkers.” Serban, her familiar captor, was the director. “He kept saying he was going to quit, and I said, ‘You [expletive], you got me into this. We’re in it together. You can’t quit.”
The show must go on, of course, and Jones now lives in a two-room apartment in New York with her wife, the documentarian Sophie Huber. She still rides her bike everywhere, even in the Big Apple (but not in London). And despite the accolades, which include an Emmy Award for her role as President Allison Taylor in the television drama “24,” she remains true to her first love — the theater. “She has never lost that spirit of generosity, despite all the recognition she has had in recent years,” says MacDonald, who understudied Jones when “The Glass Menagerie” moved from ART to Broadway. “She has always remained humble.” (Jones only missed one performance, so MacDonald did eventually get her shot at playing Amanda Wingfield.)
Jones once said she wanted to be known as “that old theatrical broad.” Mission accomplished. “If my career were to end today,” she says, “I’d be happy.”
35th Annual Elliot Norton Awards
At BU Theatre, Boston, May 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets $35, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.comPatti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.