Perhaps the most beguiling theater actress of her generation (or certainly in the top five), Cherry Jones adds yet another victory to her resume with the lead performance in "Pride's Crossing," Tina Howe's wistful new play about life's opportunities and the consequences of choice.

Perhaps the most beguiling theater actress of her generation (or certainly in the top five), Cherry Jones adds yet another victory to her resume with the lead performance in “Pride’s Crossing,” Tina Howe’s wistful new play about life’s opportunities and the consequences of choice. If the play isn’t always as solid as Jones’ acting, it nonetheless offers the gift of a performer cannily meeting the challenges of a demanding role.

It’s not just that Jones is required to age from 10 to 90 (without makeup) that makes her performance irresistible, but that she infuses her character with all the passion and regret of a very long life — which is exactly what Howe has in mind.

Smartly directed by Jack O’Brien, “Pride’s Crossing” tells the (fictional) story of Mabel Tidings Bigelow (Jones), a now-frail — in body at least — New England Brahmin of singularly independent character (think Katharine Hepburn). M.T., as she is called by old friends, had her moment of glory and dreams fulfilled when she swam the English Channel in 1928, a triumph as much of spirit as body: The endeavor was a blow to the sexist standards of her very proper blueblood family.

Now 90, of failing health and finances and haunted by the one challenge in her life she didn’t meet, M.T. prepares, against doctor’s orders, a Fourth of July croquet party that both she and the audience suspect will be her farewell.

The play takes place in both Pride’s Crossing, Mass., and M.T.’s memory, as the old woman hosts a visit from her grown granddaughter Julia (Kandis Chappell) and 10-year-old great-granddaughter Minty (Julia McIlvaine), while recalling pivotal moments of her life. Jones shifts, seemingly effortlessly (O’Brien’s direction is equally seamless) from a shaky-voiced nonagenarian to a wide-eyed little girl, brazen young woman, disappointed wife and stoic widow. We see scenes of little Mabel at her family’s combative dinner table and enjoying refuge with the good-hearted Irish kitchen staff. We see scenes of Mabel, at 20, defying her emotionally withholding mother and, in her 30s, trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage.

M.T.’s life (and the play) are dominated by two past choices — one good, one bad. The challenge she met was the swim, the opportunity lost was love: For once giving in to expectations, M.T. chose her proper New England fiance over the true romantic passion of her life, a Jewish doctor who coached her historic channel crossing. Her rare failure of nerve will have consequences far more enduring than any tarnishing trophy.

In its final scene, “Pride’s Crossing” shows us what happened on the cliffs of Dover when M.T. made her fateful decision, a choice all the more resonant since we’ve seen its consequences. But neither the play nor its main character is about self-pity, instead celebrating the passions that survive life’s hard knocks. M.T., as written and in Jones’ wonderful performance, is a character who outlasts, if never entirely escapes, her mistakes.

The rest of the play isn’t always as remarkable as its heroine. The granddaughter, like M.T. stuck in a bad marriage, is brittle and underwritten, while the characters of a devoted young housekeeper and her wayward teenage son promise more than they deliver. Indeed, they disappear in the second act, which seems to serve no purpose other than to allow the actors to assume other roles.

Howe’s writing of the croquet party, in which M.T.’s family and friends dress up in antique summer whites (Robert Morgan’s costumes are pretty throughout), is a bit on the artful side (as is the choice to have some cast members cross gender lines), but the depiction of elderly, lifelong friends is refreshing in its lack of condescension. So too is young McIlvaine, who plays little Minty without cutesy affectation. Dylan Baker, Casey Biggs and, especially, David Lansbury are very good as the men in M.T.’s life.

But it’s Jones, whether bedridden or bounding about Ralph Funicello’s attractively spare sets, who brings this play to vivid life. The English Channel wouldn’t stand a chance against her.

Pride's Crossing

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, N.Y.; 272 seats; $55

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tina Howe. Directed by Jack O'Brien.

Creative

Sets, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Robert Morgan; lighting, Kenneth Posner; music, sound, Mark Bennett; stage manager, Julie Baldauff. Artistic director, Andre Bishop. Opened, reviewed Dec. 7, 1997. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Cherry Jones (Mabel Tidings Bigelow), Angie Phillips (Vita Bright, others), Dylan Baker (Chandler Coffin, others), David Lansbury (West Bright, others), Casey Biggs (Gus Tidings, others), Kandis Chappell (Maud Tidings/Julia Renoir), Julia McIlvaine (Minty Renoir/Emma Bigelow).
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