Reviewed by Judy Richter
The first scene of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" features a priest delivering a sermon that Shanley could have written today. Father Flynn's (Chris McGarry) reference to "the secret of an alienating sorrow" sounds much like the recent confession from the Rev. Ted Haggard, a prominent evangelical minister who left his post after allegations of drug use and a homosexual relationship. In the play, one is led to believe that Father Flynn was alluding to an improper relationship with an eighth-grade boy in the St. Nicholas Catholic Church School in the Bronx in 1964.
Certainly that's what the school's principal, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), suspects. She speaks to the boy's teacher, young Sister James (Lisa Joyce), to try to confirm her suspicions. Sister Aloysius also dampens the younger nun's joy of teaching, for the principal is an old-school nun who sees discipline more important than enthusiasm or joy.
Shanley, who won both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play of 2005, skillfully constructs the 90-minute, intermissionless play, bringing forth more information and confrontations that carry the audience along on a tide of uncertainty. At first, it seems quite likely that the priest is molesting the boy, who happens to be the only black child in the school. However, as the play continues, Sister Aloysius seems more and more vindictive, hell bent on ruining the priest's reputation even when she has no direct evidence of wrongdoing. Even the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (Adriane Lenox), is much more concerned about her son's welfare than the nun's suspicions.
In the end, the play still doesn't tell us what happened, if anything, between the boy and the priest. Instead, Shanley leaves his audience talking and thinking about the play for a long time afterward.
Jones, who won a Tony for the role, is brilliant as the hard-boiled, time-worn Sister Aloysius, walking with a stooped limp and peering through glasses. Judging by the stories I've heard from people who attended Catholic schools, I suspect many people in the audience have known just such a strict nun. However, Sister Aloysius protects one of the older nuns who's going blind, and she makes clear that she truly is concerned about the boy. She's also frustrated by the male hierarchy of the church. She's well-paired with McGarry, who makes Father Flynn a friendly, caring man until confronted with the nun's suspicions.
The confrontation between the nun and priest in her office is a contest between two strong wills, but McGarry makes clear how hard the physically stronger priest tries to control his rage and not hit her. Joyce as the younger nun and Lenox as the mother also are well cast. Lenox, another Tony winner who was paired with Jones in the original Broadway production, makes the most of her one scene, a meeting with the principal.
Another Tony winner from the Broadway original is director Doug Hughes, whose pacing and blocking are so effective, even in San Francisco's cavernous Golden Gate Theatre, where the touring production is playing. The set by John Lee Beatty offsets some of the loss of intimacy in this theater, aided by Pat Collins' lighting, Catherine Zuber's costumes and David Van Tieghem's music and sound.
"Doubt" is indeed a memorable play, one that probably was inspired by news stories about pedophile priests as well as the price of stubborn vindictiveness.