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NEW YORK — To speak to Cherry Jones — Broadway star and winner of two Tonys for best actress — about her latest role in “Faith Healer” is to witness an exercise in modesty. The actress practically trips over herself as she pushes everyone in the production in front of her to receive the credit they are due — from the stage manager, Sid King, to the director, Jonathan Kent, to the playwright, Brian Friel. Nor will she accept any praise for the acting skills that have propelled her into the limelight.
“It’s what you do as a child, and actors just never stop,” the Tennessee native protests. “And I’m not that articulate as an adult. I didn’t have that great of an education and I wasn’t very good in school, so to be able to speak the words of Friel, or Shakespeare, or O’Neill and sound incredibly articulate for a couple of hours is a great turn-on to me.”
Indeed, Jones was attracted to the production, which opened Thursday night to strong reviews, by the language of Friel’s play, which is, in fact, four monologues performed in succession by three actors (Jones, Ralph Fiennes and Ian McDiarmid). It’s the tragic story of a traveling faith healer (Fiennes), who seems alternately genius and pathetic; his long-suffering and tortured wife (Jones), and his promoter, as played by a charmingly shameless McDiarmid. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked on anything where the writing is so relentlessly gorgeous,” Jones says. “The musicality of it is so strong that it was remarkably easy to learn, given its depth and intensity.”
The actors didn’t rehearse together, although Fiennes and McDiarmid had a head start on their parts since they starred in the Dublin production at the Gate Theater. “The other actors built up this pathological hatred of [group rehearsals] because to watch the others, even once, is kind of agony, because it’s hearing a rebuttal of what the characters have created for themselves,” she explains. “It’s so funny — I did a photo session with the boys and had dinner with Ralph, and so I’m building literally on that thin of a foundation of them. I’m just by myself with Mr. Friel and the memory of these two men.”
Jones has become renowned for playing difficult characters. “I’m not known for my comedic work,” the 49-year-old jokes. “I played spinsters, nuns and old maids. Now I’m just getting to the age where I am playing unhappy wives. As long as I get to avoid the Greeks, that’s all I care about,” she laughs, referring to the classic tragedies.
But she has no plans to abandon theater for film, where she’s steadily played myriad small parts, including Matt Damon’s mother in “Ocean’s Twelve,” and roles in “Erin Brokovich” and “The Perfect Storm.”
“The theater is just home,” she says. “It’s what I know and what I love and where I am most comfortable and where I feel that I am most professional.
“I think all stage actors must be a little obsessive-compulsive,” she asserts. “What other profession do you choose to walk in the door at the same hour every night, put on the same clothes, say the same lines at the same time?”
Such a regimented existence, however, leaves little time for a personal life. Jones, who lives in the West Village and has been dating actress Sarah Paulson since they met on the set of the 2005 indie film “Swimmers,” says she still has difficulty balancing everything. “When you only have one day off a week, friendships are more difficult. But I am learning that there is such a thing called lunch,” she jokes. “I think I always thought that dinner was the only meal of the day, but you can go to lunch, so that’s going to open up my social life in the second half of my life.”
Having spent so many years wedded to the theater, it’s no surprise the veteran actress has strong feelings about the recent celebrity influx onto the Great White Way. “I think it’s wonderful that Julia Roberts is doing ‘Three Days of Rain,’ because I think she’s a phenomenal actress and she started on stage as a kid,” Jones says. “Where I get sad are the times that you find people who haven’t earned the right to be on stage and are taking over roles. It’s so hard for theater actors to make a living, and when film stars take away those roles, I just think, what are we going to do?”