nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 5, 2005
John Patrick Shanley's new play Doubt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (and almost certainly many other awards this spring) is the most pointed and pertinent new play to arrive on Broadway this season. But not for the reason you might think. The synopsis goes like this: At a Catholic School in the Bronx in 1964, Sister Aloysius, the principal, becomes concerned that one of her students is possibly being sexually abused by the basketball coach, Father Flynn. So the resonance of Doubt must lie in the simmering and still unsatisfactorily resolved scandal involving pedophile priests and the wicked cover-ups perpetrated at various levels of the Church hierarchy—right?
Wrong. Though Shanley touches upon the very troubling notion of a priest abusing one of his altar boys, this is assuredly not the subject of this challenging and intelligent play. Doubt is about doubt, and more importantly its opposite, blind faith. This is not a whodunnit but a whydoit: Sister Aloysius builds her case against Father Flynn from the inside out, with its fueling core composed of nothing stronger than unempirical conviction. Of course, it is often true that nothing is stronger than unempirical conviction—that's precisely the point.
Shanley builds the play cannily. We meet Father Flynn first—strapping, easy-going, clearly fond of his students and apparently well-liked by them; possibly troubled and maybe a little furtive. Then we meet Sister Aloysius, who is a remarkable personality: a woman who came to the Church after her husband died in World War II; steely, difficult, unmovable, and impenetrable; hard to get close to and hard to like but very easy to admire and impossible NOT to respect. Sister James, the younger teacher whose help she enlists in her quest to learn the truth about Father Flynn, tells her that all of the students are terrified of her—which is exactly what she thinks they should be. Duty to her work and faith in her beliefs are her unwavering priorities.
So when she begins to suspect that something is amiss between Father Flynn and an eighth-grader, she is single-minded and unscrupulous in ascertaining the truth, at least to her own satisfaction. Sister James thinks the boy may have been behaving strangely after a private session with Flynn; she reports her vague observations to Sister Aloysius and sets the investigation in motion. The obstacles Sister Aloysius faces are formidable: women are not decision-makers in the Church; she is very much at the mercy of the Monsignor, who favors Flynn and is unlikely to believe any allegations against him. The boy's mother, who is summoned by Sister Aloysius for an interview that is at once the most emotional and most harrowing scene in the play, chooses to close her eyes to whatever may or may not be going on for a variety of reasons, the main ones being that he's the first and only black child in the school, and that he is "that way" and if his father finds out, he'll kill him (her words, not mine).
And so the story proceeds, relentlessly. There are not one but two confrontations between nun and priest. Agendas are forced; truth is always blurry and out of reach. Is Father Flynn a slick, sick predator? Or is Sister Aloysius, acting on a vendetta that even she may not fully understand, unjustly persecuting him?
Shanley's fine, brilliantly-constructed script is served up beautifully. Doug Hughes's low-key direction is taut and unobtrusive, while the simple but elegant design by John Lee Beatty (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Pat Collins (lighting), and David Van Tieghem (sound and music) frames the piece superbly without any one element threatening to overwhelm or distract.
Adriane Lenox gives a powerful performance as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the possible victim; we sense this woman's fear and otherness at first, and later get a glimpse at her remarkable courage and determination. Heather Goldenhersh plays to type as the inexperienced Sister James, indulging perhaps more than necessary in the wispy simpering that is becoming her trademark but nevertheless turning in a credible performance.
The play's antagonists are brilliantly played by Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne, the latter delivering a thoughtful, textured characterization that highlights the various aspects of Father Flynn's possibly conflicted personality with real incisiveness. As Sister Aloysius, Jones is nothing short of astonishing, imbuing this woman with enormous intelligence, fortitude, and no small amount of humor; the unshakable faith that she has in her religion and herself is at once hugely admirable and a little scary. She provides the strong but finally doubtful presence at the center of this remarkable play.
The relevance of Shanley's exploration here will hopefully not be lost on anyone, by the way: firm, unwavering belief in a thing that has yet to be proven seems to be one of the guideposts of our present administration's policies, after all. Doubt sheds needed light on such a system of belief and action, and reminds us of its potentially catastrophic consequences, not only for our so-called and supposed opponents, but for ourselves.