Reviewed by Claudia Perry
In this day and age it is a rarity to see truly great character acting. Yes, acting where an actor or actress assumes an entirely different being. Their inner and outer reality is unlike that of the personality of the actor as we know them. They walk differently, speak with a peculiar idiosyncrasy, hunch their shoulders in a certain way, and perhaps crook their fingers to appear slightly arthritic. In short, they physically and emotionally assume the shape of a completely new human being. Alex Guiness was always my favorite actor because I felt that he accomplished this the way no other actor of his generation ever did. Of course, now we are lucky to have Cherry Jones reprising the role she originated in 2005 which has earned her a Tony, a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Lucille Lortel Award and an Obie.
At the beginning of the play my husband quietly asked me if Cherry Jones was the young nun on stage left. I said, "No, Dear, she's the bespectacled, hunch shouldered, slightly arthritic one that walks like every nun I have ever known." (And since I was forced to attend Catholic school for eight years, I knew many of them.) But one shouldn't be dazzled merely by these brilliant outer trappings, for underneath, Ms. Jones has layered the character of Sister Aloysius with the steely fiber of a moralistic tigress.
It is the autumn of 1964 and John Patrick Shanley's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning four character drama is fueled by Sister Aloysius, the Principal at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. Ever vigilant about her students, Sister Aloysius has doubts about the new young priest, Father Flynn. She directs the new novice teacher, Sister James to report anything unusual to her immediately. When Sister James comes back with news that the young African American student, Muller, returned with liquor on his breath after talking with Father Flynn alone in the Rectory, Sister Aloysius builds a case against Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius is determined to make Father Flynn confess to abusing the boy. It becomes a test of wills as the Principal is hard pressed to be able to gather any concrete evidence against the priest. In her innocent optimism, the young Sister James simply does not want to believe that Father Flynn is guilty. And after a meeting with Mrs. Muller, who will not take a stand against Father Flynn, due to a curious twist, that we never suspect, Sister Aloysius is out on a limb all by herself.
The wonderful thing about this play is that the audience seems to go through exactly what Sister Aloysius does -- we suspect but will never be able to prove anything. We mistrust and yet at the same time feel compassion for the young priest. We like Father Flynn's openness and easy going ways - and yet find him slightly disingenuous. We dislike Sister Aloysius's need to squelch anything new and amusing and her horror over the "Frosty the Snowman" song is laughable. And yet we admire her doggedness at trying to root out the truth. In short, the characters are complex and real and engaging and so is the acting on all sides.
Chris McGarry is charming as the boyish, evasive and disarming Father Flynn. He walks the fine line between being kind and manipulative at the same time. He knows what to say to people to comfort them and to win them over. Lisa Joyce is lovely as the young and eager Sister James. Her joy for teaching is overshadowed by her wish to please her superior -- who demands that she be a disciplinarian first and a teacher second. Caroline Stefanie Clay is great as Mrs. Muller - whose revelations about her son only confound Sister Aloysius. But the real jewel in the crown is Ms. Jones, who is the engine that keeps the play roaring across the stage. It is also, I may add, Doug Hughes finely tuned directing that keeps the balance and tenuous moments of the play together - as if everyone were on tethers made of silken spider's web.
It's rare for a straight dramatic play to have much of a life after Broadway - but this play is definitely the exception to the rule. This will be your last chance to catch this wonderful play -- as this is the final stop on this National Tour. If you go - there's no doubt you will find it relevant, engrossing and thought provoking.