by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Cherry Jones
MTC at Colonial Theatre
106 Boylston, Boston / (617) 931 - 2787
Through Feb 18

Reviewed by Will Stackman

There are only a few plays written recently that explore a complex moral and emotional issue so fully. John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt", perhaps written in response to the abuse scandals concerning the Catholic priesthood, starts out with a homily on that ambiguous mental state. The preacher is Father Flynn, the pastor of Saint Nicholas, here played by actor/director Chris McGarry in his fifth collaboration with the author. In a sense, the play is Shanley's explication of the conflict between doubt and faith, between faith and "rules," a kind of theatrical homily. The latter is personified by Sister Aloysius, the principal of the convent school associated with the parish, played by Cherry Jones former ART leading lady. She's currently touring her Tony winning performance in the grand tradition of old time Broadway.

Sister Aloysius' foil in her pursuit of rulebreakers, particularly Father Flynn, is Sister James, a young 8th grade teacher, played by Lisa Joyce, who becomes her principal's informant, played by Lisa Joyce. The younger nun's naive faith is sorely tried by her superior's almost Calvinist obsession with propriety, which only barely hides a frustration with the Church's male-dominated hierarchy, symbolized by the unseen elderly monsignor who she's sure would side with Father Flynn. Jones uses her considerable skill at maintaining a physical interpretation of a role to show us an aging woman suffering from osteoporosis and nearsighted.

The matter of the play, the focus of everyone's doubts, is a possible improper relationship between the school's only black student and the pastor, who's also the basketball coach. In the course of the principal's relentless pursuit of the priest, whose liberal ways she does not approve of, the fourth member of the cast, the boy's mother, played by Caroline Stefanie Clay, who appeared in the original off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club production. All the rest of the players in this action are offstage, the black altar boy, a sexton who caught the youngster sneaking a drink of communion wine, the boy's policeman father who abuses him for not being tough enough, and in a sense, the world outside the Church which Sister Aloysius seeks to fend off by the application of strict rules.

Shanley's 90 minute emotional and intellectual puzzle, which shifts between the principals' indictment of the pastor for unproven improper relationship with the boy, the young teacher's naive trust, and briefly, his mother's acceptance of her son's softness, rivets the audience. It's not unpredictable that women seem to side with Sister Aloysius, however unpleasant her tactics may be, while many men will come to Father Flynn's defense. McGarry plays an ambitious man intent on working himself up the male hierarchy of the Church, in a sense "a man in a black serge suit." The controversy between the principal and the pastor is balanced in this production by the ability of this cast to play in the moment while hinting at so much of the past. By pruning the action the playwright has given them enough conflicting motivation for a drama twice as long. Doug Hughes' long-running direction maintains the standoff evenhandedly, maintaining the audience's doubts up to the very end.

This is probably the best mounted touring show to grace the Colonial's venerable boards in a long time. Scenes move across John Lee Beatty's set, so that the austere frame of the church garden with a madonna in shadows at the back is invaded by the principal's office. Costumes by Catherine Zuber help the two nuns differentiate their roles , and effective lighting by Pat Collins creates contrast between harsh interior lighting and the murky sanctity of this cloistered world. David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design complete the illusion. All provide the necessary reminder that "Doubt" is a parable told to illustrate the author's uneasy homily. It will interesting to see how the impending movie, which will star Yale trained Meryl Streep interpreting the role of Sister Aloysius, fares.

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