(l to r) Lisa Joyce and Cherry Jones (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
By John Patrick Shanley
Produced by MTC Productions at the National Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Of all the great dramas our best contemporary playwrights have written, including Wit, Proof and Angels in America, Doubt is the one most likely to be remembered two generations from now in the way we now remember Streetcar and Death of a Salesman. Dense, penetrating and wise, it invites its audience to commit an act of moral honesty. Much like the protagonist, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), Shanley relentlessly chases down difficult choices in this play, and in so doing, makes us face them too.
The basic outline of this Pulitzer-winning work is well known. It is 1964, and Sister Aloysius, the old-school Principal of a Catholic elementary school, suspects the charismatic young assistant pastor, Father Brendan Flynn (Chris McGarry), of molesting an altar boy. Given these predicates, you could be forgiven for thinking that the “doubt” in the title refers to the uncertainty that Sister Aloysius might have over her grave and (at the time) unusual apprehensions – but you would be wrong. Sister Aloysius appears to never have had doubt about anything in her life. Shanley means “doubt” in its old-fashioned sense: the opposite of presumption. The things that we believe because they make us comfortable are the ones most likely to be wrong.
Chris McGarry (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Doubt is set in an era when it was cool to be a Catholic. The heroic Jack Kennedy and jolly Pope John – both recently dead – were the public face of Catholicism in America; Vatican II was making a remote faith more accessible to millions; and Catholics were at the forefront in the wars against poverty, racism and social injustice. Father Flynn is a perfect emblem of this fresh, muscular version of the old faith – witty, highly intelligent, a fine speaker who shows a deep love for the young people to whom he ministers. He is, as he insists, part of the congregation’s “family” – a father to the young men he coaches, and a brother in Christ to the whole parish.
Sister Aloysius, on the other hand, is distinctly of the Pius XII-crowd. To her, life for the righteous is an eternal hair shirt. To be of God’s party, she believes, requires a dignified separation from those around her. She rails against ball-point pens because they permit her students to press hard upon the paper and thus to “write like monkeys,” and she admonishes young Sister James (Lisa Joyce) against her enthusiastic teaching of history, lest the children forget that learning, to be successful, must be tedious and painful. We in the audience laugh at these views – served up beautifully by Jones in a vinegary, papery voice – because no one holds them any more, and they are thus not threatening. But in 1964 they represented an important perspective not only in the Catholic Church but in American culture generally
Her suspicions seem bottomed on slender evidence and, were it not for the profound seriousness of her accusation, our sympathies would all be with Father Flynn. Hide-bound, rule-bound and reactionary, Sister Aloysius is a clenched fist of a woman, and her relentless investigation seems heedless not only of Flynn’s reputation but of the consequences for his purported victim as well. Flynn, on the other hand, seems open-hearted and generous, an avatar of a new Church of Love whose advent was like the loosening of too-tight shoes for practicing Catholics at the time.
And yet – I give nothing away by saying this, since it has been in the press frequently – her accusations are most probably correct. He is almost certainly a molester. And, for a moment, we have doubts – about all the comfortable assumptions we have made in our lives; about all the attractive characters to whom we’ve given the benefit of the doubt; about all the morally questionable practices we’ve failed to examine because of the disruption to our lives that close scrutiny would cause.
“To pursue wrongdoers, one must step away from God,” Sister Aloysius says. It is a bold person who would take such a step. Yet skepticism – an unavoidable consequence of the examination of conscience – is distinctly compatible with Christianity. “Father Abram! What these Christians are,/ Whose own hard dealing teaches them suspect/ The thoughts of others,” Shylock mused in The Merchant of Venice.
There is an ironic, and sadly familiar, denouement which foreshadows the doubt which now afflicts Sister Aloysius’ Church.
Jones has been celebrated for her work in this role – and justly, since she is marvelous – but the whole ensemble is devastatingly good. This is an acting clinic. McGarry plays Flynn as a literate politician – a combination Kennedy and C.S. Lewis – matching the behavior of many bright young priests of the time. Joyce, who carries the audience’s point of view with her, is unselfconsciously naïve without ever being treacly. And there is a moment where Sister Aloysius asks the victim’s mother, played by Caroline Stefanie Clay, whether her son has been acting strangely. Clay’s response, hesitant, layered, with a nervous jump of her eyes before she says no, says more about her boy, his history, and his dilemma than three pages of expository dialogue would say.
Director Doug Hughes wisely lets his actors tell the story, limiting sound to the cawing of a crow and a flash of metallic sound to signal the end of the scene, and maintaining two basic settings – Sister Aloysius’ office, and a courtyard between the rectory and convent. The much-acclaimed Hughes, of course, also deserves credit for the wonderfully effective flow of the story, as well as for collaborating with the actors on their superb performances.
Our literate culture produces many playwrights who can amuse and entertain us. But a playwright who can make his audience into better people is a rare and valuable commodity. The fifty-six-year-old Shanley is a prolific author (he wrote the screenplay for Moonstruck and the quirky Hanks-Ryan movie Joe Versus the Volcano) who has decided to step up in quality. I can hardly wait to see what he writes next.
(Running time: 1:30 with no intermission.) Doubt continues at the National Theatre Tuesdays through Sundays until March 25. Evening shows are at 8 pm, except for Sundays which are at 7.30. There are also 2:00 matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets range from $38.75 to $78.75 and can be had at the National Theatre Box Office, by calling 800.447.7400, or by clicking www.Telecharge.com.