Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker
In cavernous Carol Morsani Hall of TBPAC, the opening sermon could have seemed a trumpet blast to a multitude, but lighting focused on Chris McGarry, down center, who conveyed Father Flynn's message as if a personal quandary. Themes: "what do you do when you're not sure?"; despair; isolation. With his story of a sailor doubting his fate, he concludes that a crisis of faith "may be a bond as powerful as certainty." Thus author John Patrick Shanley introduces his play subtitled "A Parable." Parables tell stories that illustrate moral dilemma and teach ethics, usually in dogmatic, religious terms.
No one could be more ethically concerned than Sister Aloysius (brilliantly individualistic Cherry Jones). This strict, live-by-the-rules principal believes Father Flynn has had improper relations with the first black student in her school. Into her office, soon to be a war zone of sorts, she calls on idealistic young Sister James (Lisa Joyce, full of enthusiasm at first, ending high on nerves). Her account of smelling liquor on the boy's breath after one of his not infrequent times alone with Father bolsters Sister Aloysius' convictions. They're confirmed by a confrontation with Flynn, where he pulls rank on her, and made all the more crucial after an interview with the (never seen) boy's mother. Caroline Stefanie Clay effectively reveals why her homosexual son might be better off with an accepting "father" who doesn't beat him. Besides, her son need only hold out until graduating at end of term.
Just as Sister Aloysius sought allies, so Father Flynn enlists the diocesan hierarchy as well as Sister James. She's been brought to doubt her own perceptions. Greatly influenced by the principal having crushed her enthusiasm for teaching and importance of the arts ("The best teachers do not perform; they cause their students to perform."), she responds sympathetically to Flynn's appeals for belief. He's even sermonized another parable about the destructiveness of unfounded gossip. In the background is his superior Monsignor, a man who'd never believe evil of anyone. So all the forces active in a typical urban Church in 1964 pull together to squash Sister Aloysius' concerns. Will she be doubted or, herself, doubt? And is Father Flynn guilty? It's discussed vigorously as the audience leaves the theatre-and probably afterward.
Of two things there's no doubt: Sister Aloysius is a full, unique character, and Cherry Jones articulates her with a voice to match. Not a typical spinster but a widow, Sister is strict and literal but without lacking humor. At a time of dwindling vocations, she covers for an older teaching nun who's going blind. (My only criticism of the play is that this mention doesn't make up for the lack of a sense of presence of a community of sisters. Or of any lay teachers, surely around at the time.) Though Sister Aloysius may seem isolated in her small, dismal office, she knows all the students by name and observation. She disdains the church patriarchal hierarchy as well as teaching anything frivolous-at least to her Bronx charges who, she feels, need discipline and practical knowledge. What upsets her most as she goes after Father Flynn is that if he's not stopped, his current victim will be one in a long line. She feels responsible for him and them all. Sometimes squinting, Jones seems to bear the responsibility on her shoulders. And for glory.
John Lee Beatty designed effective the rotating & flown-in Scenery; Pat Collins, mood through Lighting; Catherine Zuber, Costumes; David Van Tieghem, Music & Sound. Charles Means was Production Stage Manager. 95 minutes w/o intermission.