Sarah Paulson in the Spotlight

When openly gay actress Cherry Jones won a Tony award for Best Actress in a Play at the 59th Annual Tony Awards, which was broadcast by CBS and watched by over 6 million viewers on Sunday, June 5, she received an excited kiss on the lips from her girlfriend Sarah Paulson, with whom she had been holding hands throughout the ceremony.

Moments later, in her acceptance speech on stage, Jones said “Laura Wingfield, I share this with you,” referring to Paulson by the name of the character she currently plays in the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie.

And just like that, the relationship that had been an open secret in theater circles for awhile suddenly became public.

If Sarah Paulson looks familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen her in a few high-profile movies or memorable TV roles. But most of her performances have been on the stage.

Born in Tampa, Florida in 1975, Paulson then moved with her family to Manhattan, where she made her professional debut at the age of 12 in an off-Broadway production of Amerlia Agai. She continued to do theater while she attended LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

She made her Broadway debut in the production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Tony Award-winning play The Sisters Rosensweig in 1993, and has also starred in the off-Broadway production of Talking Pictures, and regional productions of several plays, including Stalin’s Daughter, Ashes, Ashes, Does Anyone Hear Me?, The Penitent Madeline, Best Friends, and An Evening of One Acts.

Paulson received rave reviews for her 1998 performance in Killer Joe, an off-Broadway production featuring Scott Glenn and Amanda Plummer, and she has received mostly positive reviews for her current role in The Glass Menagerie, which co-stars Jessica Lange and Christian Slater and runs through July 2005.

In 1994, Paulson> made her television debut in an episode of Law and Order, and landed her first leading role on TV in the 1995 CBS supernatural drama American Gothic, playing a dead woman who communicates with her living brother. While the series only last a season, it developed a loyal cult following, as did the WB’s Jack and Jill (1999), in which Paulson played a supporting role.

She landed another leading role in the 2002 NBC comedy Leap of Faith, about a group of 30-something friends, but the series was canceled after only a handful of episodes had aired.

Paulson made her big-screen debut in 1997’s Levitation, starring as a pregnant teenager searching for her birth mother. She played Diane Keaton’s lesbian daughter in The Other Sister (1999), and was cast in supporting roles in Held Up (1999), the Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt comedy What Women Want (2000), and the comedy Bug (2002). Then in 2003, she delivered a memorable and well-reviewed performance as the best friend of Renee Zellweger’s character in Down With Love, a spoof of popular 1950s sex comedies co-starring Ewan McGregor and David Hyde Pierce.

Although Paulson continues to focus her career efforts on theater, she hasn’t left film and television behind. She can currently be seen on TV in a supporting role in the second season of HBO’s critically acclaimed western series Deadwood, and Paulson and Jones recently co-starred in the indie film Swimmers, which screened at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival in January and is currently making the festival rounds.

48-year old Jones became the first — and still only — openly lesbian Tony Award winner when she thanked her then-partner in her Best Actress win acceptance speech in 1995 (for her title role in The Heiress). Jones and her long-time partner broke up a few years later.

Paulson and Jones have made no secret of their relationship since they began dating, regularly attending events and parties together, but they have not discussed their relationship in the press so far. Their low-key but open display of affection during the Tonys indicates a small but significant change in the degree to which they are willing to be out as a couple.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. In their morning-after coverage of the 2005 Tony Awards, veteran guide to New York Theater Playbill noted that “Cherry Jones, when taking her Best Actress (Play) award for Doubt referenced her ‘Laura Wingfield’ from the stage. Her partner is Sarah Paulson, of Broadway’s The Glass Menagerie.” noted in their post-Awards write-up, under the subheading “One Giant Step for Gay Rights,” that “Cherry Jones, who made a similar splash back in 1995 when she won for The Heiress, paused before going to the podium to present Glass Menagerie star Sarah Paulson with a big kiss.”

And as wrote in their gossip blog today, “before the telecast, Paulson was not officially out of the closet. She is now!”

Since Paulson and Jones both have a history of being press-shy, their moment at the Tonys may be the only kind of coming-out statement Paulson makes.

But it’s enough.

2006 Update: Sarah has been cast in a lead role in the NBC drama series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.