Stage Review by Lisa Bowman
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley
If one somehow doesn’t glean the theme of Pulitzer Prize winning play,
Doubt, from its title, playwright John Patrick Shanley flatly states it in the first
line, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” From that dramatic moment
forward, Shanley takes us for a dizzying theatrical ride, never once letting
viewers feel certain about the goodness of any of the play’s four characters.
Doubt swept Broadway’s Tony Awards in 2005, garnering Best
Play, Best Director (Doug Hughes), Best Actress (Cherry Jones, reprising
her role) and Best Supporting Actress (Adriane Lenox, also reprising her
role in this production). It is set in New York in 1964, not coincidentally
when Shanley attended a Catholic school in the Bronx. Also not by chance
is that this is the time during which alleged child molestations by Catholic
priests now in litigation were occurring.
This is the setting upon which Shanley hangs his parable, and yet
child molestation is not its theme. But acting with black and white certainty
in a world painted with grays comprises much of the play’s premise. Is
Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) molesting the school’s first black student?
Based on the flimsiest of evidence, the aggressively moralistic school
principal, Sister Aloysius, leaps to the conclusion that he is and thus
launches her campaign to stop the priest from doing…what? We just
can’t be sure. And neither can Sister Aloysius, despite her ensuing actions.
Draping knee jerk judgment over the hot button topic of pedophilia is a
stroke of discomforting, exploitive genius on Shanley’s part. Precisely
because of the sexual connotations it is impossible to avoid
a visceral, engrossing interest in the priest's possible guilt; equally so
whether Sister Aloysius is a perceptive woman way ahead of her time or
merely a devastating bull in the china shop shattering people’s lives.
Cherry Jones, winner of Broadway’s Tony Award for her performance
as Sister Aloysius, portrays the rigid, crusty nun as a woman with good
intentions distorted by her blind, unfeeling zeal. The imposing Jones layers
a brilliant interpretation of a character that both intimidates and impresses
in a most disturbing way. Jones’ innate respect for this woman allows her
character to serve as both antagonist and a partial protagonist within the
play. The duality could only be achieved by a formidable actress in a seminal
role. In lesser hands the part could easily crumble into a one-dimensional
McGarry as the priest in question, presents a man guided more by
feelings than principle. Without a hint of the scriptures in the two sermons
we hear him give, he moralizes unilaterally. Yet he appears motivated by
genuine care for his students. What is not clear is whether his personal
moral compass would prevent him from acting on abusive impulses he
may possess. Given the circumstances, a train wreck with the stern nun
Young Lisa Joyce plays Sister James, a naturally buoyant nun whose
joy Sister Aloysius destroys. Unfortunately, Joyce plays the nun with a limp
naiveté that weakens the transition. The more interesting choice would have
been to play Sister James unspoiled yet intellectually sharp. Watching Sister
Aloysius systematically cut away at her heart by casting suspicions on Father
Flynn then would have had greater impact. As it is, it’s like taking candy from
a baby. She’s no match.
The fourth element in the play is the mother of the boy who perhaps is
being molested by Father Flynn. Adriane Lenox plays Mrs. Muller with raw
emotional tension. Her stinging desperation lends her character a shocking
perspective on the situation. Her only scene in the entire play, it still earned
Lenox a Tony Award. The fireworks she and Jones set off are a tribute to two
Director Doug Hughes spins the parable of Doubt with a sure, swift hand.
He is the first to speak admiringly of Shanley’s lean writing. Armed with the
one certainty that humanity suffers from chronic uncertainty, they both use the
play as a rehearsal for our lives. Hughes spares us no emotional agony during
the play. And as the curtain falls, both he and Shanley ensure that we will leave
the theatre gasping for breath in a sea of deep misgivings. It's rare theatre.
Doubt throws down a disconcerting gauntlet. It challenges us to trust that
growth can only sprout from the tenuous roots of painfully broken certainty.
"Doubt" runs at the Ahmanson Theatre
in Los Angeles thru Oct. 29.
Clip # 1 - A guest puts in her
two cents and gets a good
laugh from the audience.
Raymond, National Director
of Family Theatre Productions,
gives his reaction to the play.
Psychologist and another panel
member, shares her thoughts.
Neighborhood Night close
the proceedings with great
and insightful comments.