Cherry Jones should be celebrating. The top-billed star of the Broadway revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten recently picked up a fresh set of critical valentines from Ben Brantley and John Simon for her performance as Josie Hogan. (Brantley was in tears at the play's climactic moment, a delicate dance of grief and longing between Jones and Gabriel Byrne as James Tyrone.) She has a terrific relationship with Byrne--whose reviews were nothing short of rapturous--and Roy Dotrice, as Josie's crusty dad. But Jones' mood last week as she sipped tea in her dressing room was reflective. The play is difficult, the part demanding--and there's a ghost lurking in the corner of her psyche named Colleen Dewhurst.

Every feature story about this Moon includes the tale of how Cherry Jones, then 16, was mesmerized by Dewhurst's performance as Josie in 1973. Elliot Martin, who brought Dewhurst and Jason Robards to Broadway in Moon 27 years ago, asked Jones to star in the current revival after seeing her dazzling performance in Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing. Jones, of course, won every conceivable acting prize, including a Tony, five years ago for The Heiress; since then, she has juggled big, challenging roles on stage (The Night of the Iguana, Tongue of a Bird) and small but notable roles in films like Cradle Will Rock and Erin Brockovich. She has endeared herself to the theater community for her steadfast loyalty to the stage and is an enthusiastic audience member when she's not working, often accompanied by her partner, architect Mary O'Connor.

And yet Jones clearly harbors mixed feelings about tackling A Moon for the Misbegotten. In the following frank conversation, she talks about the insecurities that even the most accomplished actors can fall prey to.

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TM: You've played a lot of complex characters, but I get the feeling that Josie has been a different kind of challenge.

JONES: Very different. I thought--and others thought--that this would be a nice fit for me, but it's not a role I was born to play. I've been blessed with so many roles in the last 10 years that were such good fits, and this one just isn't.

TM: Why do you feel that way?

JONES: What O'Neill demands of any actress for this role is outrageous. This is a woman who has very low self-esteem but also a crushing amount of pride; it's her pride that keeps her surviving. She also has a deep love for her father, which I think contemporary audiences don't fully understand. Lots of folks think, "Here's this poor woman who has cast her lot with two alcoholic men who can't give her enough." They're missing the point of the play. I also think I put too much pressure on myself because of Colleen. I saw her [play Josie], and I've treasured it for 27 years. The memory of that experience has been like my own personal talisman. There's never been a force of nature on stage quite like Colleen in this role.

TM: Have you felt less pressure since the reviews came out?

JONES: [Laughs] The sad thing is that the only reviews I saw other than The New York Times were bad for me. I did read the Times, which was one of the most beautifully written things I've ever read. Then Mary and I went down to Washington on my day off, and this friend picked up his New Yorker and said, "Oh look, there's a blurb here." He, of course, thought I only get good reviews. I snatched it away from him because I didn't want him to have to read a bad review aloud, and it was very bad. Variety was terrible for me, but I know exactly the night they saw it because I was experiencing stage fright. I think I'm at a sort of mid-career crisis point, which has to happen to any actor who's had a modicum of success. I also think, for actresses of a certain age, there's a line you step over into the second half of your career. For a lot of different reasons, I started this play with a bit of a confidence crunch, and I've been experiencing stage fright for the first time in my life. It was dreadful in Chicago, and pretty bad before we opened, but now it's tapering down; I've been feeling better this week.

TM: I hope that you can relax and enjoy this, because you are so well matched with your co-stars.

JONES: I am just now starting to enjoy it. I know it's a good balance [with Gabriel Byrne and Roy Dotrice]. One thing that I'm proud about with this production is [helping people realize] it's Jim Tyrone's play. I don't know who started the idea that this is Josie Hogan's play--academicians, or even O'Neill himself--but it's not. I think what this production makes clear is that it's O'Neill's gift to his dead brother. Now, I have to admit that, as brilliant as Jason Robards was, all I remember about the play as a 16-year-old girl was Colleen. She was such a stunning, startling personality, and her attack on this very difficult role was unique. But it's Jim's play.

TM: Do you enjoy acting with Gabriel Byrne?

JONES: Oh, so much! Before we started the second act today, he said to me, "Maybe when this is over, we can go out to dinner and think about something else to do together." That meant the world to me, because I am completely in love with his Jim Tyrone and just enthralled by his performance. He hadn't been on a stage in 13 years, and to have the courage to sculpt that performance the way he did.... [Director] Dan Sullivan really helped Gabriel with this; he was an actor, and Jim Tyrone is certainly a role that Dan Sullivan could have played. It's an amazing thing to watch Gabriel climb that mountain. He and Roy are the ones who never stop. Josie doesn't have a monologue in this play; all she does is react, react, react. She comes on stage, gets rid of [her brother] Mike, and then is manipulated for the rest of the first act and well into the second.

TM: Getting back to your feelings of pressure, has any of that come from the success you've achieved in the past few years? You're one of the reigning queens of New York theater.

JONES: That's unfair, because it's not really true. There's a mantle that's been placed on me because of The Heiress and Pride's Crossing that's exceedingly flattering but it's not accurate, and it's not fair to me or to a lot of other actresses in this community who are just blazing. I think I get the mantle placed on me because people so appreciate the fact that I've stayed in the theater and that I don't have a burgeoning Hollywood career.

TM: Are you happy with this mix of big parts in theater and small parts in movies?

JONES: Yeah. If I could do that for the rest of my life, it would be wonderful. A Broadway salary is so unusual. If I could keep getting a little bit of a film salary along the way, I could go back downtown and to regional theaters and still start putting money away for retirement. Theater actors just cannot make a living.

TM: You got some nice reviews for Cradle Will Rock [as Hallie Flanagan, head of the Federal Theater Project].

JONES: I loved working with [director] Tim Robbins. I have a little part in this Wolfgang Petersen movie that will be out soon, The Perfect Storm, that stars George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Karen Allen and Bob Gunton and I are in this little subplot; we're on a sailboat that sails into the hurricane.

TM: Did you enjoy working with Julia Roberts on Erin Brockovich?

JONES: I liked her very much. She's so professional and friendly in how she functions, given the kind of celebrity she has. I loved [director] Steven Soderbergh. He's what you imagine an old-time movie director would be, so hands-on. He shot every frame of the movie that I was involved in. He wants to direct for the theater, but he's so modest; he doesn't feel he has the expertise to do it, so he sneaks around and directs plays at places like L.S.U. I was really impressed with him.

TM: Speaking of celebrity, are you able to maintain the anonymity you've said you crave?

JONES: My kind of celebrity is nice. It's theater lovers coming up and saying, "We loved you in The Heiress," not someone saying, "Weren't you in that action movie where the guy shot the girl in the head?" It's always something sweet.