John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning musing on the topic of doubt conveys that central theme brilliantly, though it shrouds it in more current issues, specifically that of the ongoing priest scandals within the Catholic Church.,Little is more conflicted in history than religion. The essential question used to separate believers from non-believers is faith versus doubt.
John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning musing on the topic of doubt conveys that central theme brilliantly, though it shrouds it in more current issues, specifically that of the ongoing priest scandals within the Catholic Church.
A vague title like Doubt could have easily applied to any number of situations, because every circumstance and every decision involves a little bit of doubt. Shanley sets the play in a Bronx parochial school in the 1960s, a choice that lends it power and relevance.
Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius is the fearsome nun from the childhood of every boy and girl who went to Catholic school, but makes the stereotype her own. She is a widow with a grating voice and severe osteoporosis. She is eternally formal and fits the staunch, dogmatic faith of the Catholic Church to a T, following convention perfectly.
Jones incorporates the minute physical details of the character with a dry, all-knowing attitude that gleams from her bespectacled eyes. The audience will truly begin to believe that Jones' Sister Aloysius really can see through walls and sense whenever lies are being told.
The main conflict of Doubt is the tug-of-war between Jones' outstanding yet traditional Sister and the parish priest, Father Flynn. The Sister suspects Flynn of abusing one of the boys and is determined to root out this crime, though she has no definitive proof. Another plotline is that Donald Muller, the aforementioned boy, is the first black student at the school, though that is less important than the possibility of abuse. It is her conviction and her unflinching faith that Flynn has done wrong that serves as the catalyst for action.
Jones is clearly the best actress in Doubt. She received a Tony award for the role in 2005 after acting on Broadway in numerous plays, including Angels in America and The Heiress, for which she won another Tony.
Numerous credits aside, Jones truly deserves every bit of the praise she has thus received for the role of Sister Aloysius, which she originated in the off-Broadway production.
Juxtaposed to Sister Aloysius' undaunted belief is Father Flynn's wily, untraditional manner. Played excellently by Chris McGarry, Flynn is a basketball player, roguishly Irish and deliciously accented, making him seem approachable and yet a bit too friendly. The added suspicion Aloysius' accusation casts on him creates a sinister character, like the neighbor who slips razorblades into apples on Halloween.
McGarry plays this part with a restless, tense feeling, as if he is a high-school bully dressed in a clerical collar. Though the audience never witnesses his relationship with Donald Muller, it becomes incredibly tangible.
The scenery is simple, like a Catholic school in the '60s: a crucifix on one wall, a portrait of a bishop on the other. The costumes are simple too. Excessive finery would have taken away from the words, which are indeed the most important part.
Director Doug Hughes does an excellent job of transitioning from scenes, using light and sound inventively instead of simply fading in and out. The actors are mostly well directed and it is clear that plenty of thought was given to the physical aspects of the play. The children who attend St. Nicholas are never present on stage, but they are an invisible force, preached to often by Father Flynn and referred to constantly in all of the Sisters' conversations.
Doubt illustrates three types of women who are entirely dominated by the men in their lives, but there is a sense of rebellion against the misogynist pigeonholes that has each of the women trapped inside. Caroline Stefanie Clay plays a wonderful Mrs. Muller, Donald's mother, although she has the odd habit of turning her head toward the audience and shaking it whenever she is upset, a fault of the blocking and not her own. The best part of Clay's performance is how she plays her part with nervous desperation, especially as she pleads for her son to stay at the school.
Similarly, Lisa Joyce plays a more submissive role as the sweet school-teacher nun Sister James, eager to impress her superiors and yet also filled with uncertainty. Throughout, Sister James' internal battle over who to believe and what to do creates an interesting dynamic in the play.
Ultimately, Doubt becomes one of those plays that will truly begin once the audience is gone. The curtain has fallen, the actors prepare for another show, but the audience is left to reflect on their own doubts, however great or small they may be.
John Patrick Shanley was right in saying that we need to embrace doubt more often, that "we've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty." He discourages that certainty because, stripped of all layers, we can never quite be sure of anything.
Doubt is a masterpiece of the modern age, and more of a lesson to be learned than a piece of art to be enjoyed. This self-proclaimed parable is written with the kind of poetry and poignancy that will undoubtedly ensconce it as one of the best plays of the 21st century.