Review: Shanley's 'Doubt' a Terrific Play

By Michael Kuchwara
Associated Press, carried in WTOP [New York]
November 23, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) - "What do you do when you are not sure?" The question is at the heart of "Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's terrific new play, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club. And it's arrived just in time.

"Doubt" wakes up this slumbering theater season, jolting the audience with a tough, timely story, rich in character, language and ideas.

In a fast 90 minutes, Shanley skillfully examines the uncertainty surrounding a priest and his relationship with a young male student in a Catholic grade school. Rumors swirl. But are they true?

Shanley lays out the situation's ambiguity with astonishing theatricality. He's helped by a remarkable, four-person cast and the taut, tight direction of Doug Hughes, who doesn't allow a word to be wasted.

And "Doubt" provides the wondrous Cherry Jones with her best role since her Tony-winning performance in "The Heiress" in 1995. Jones portrays Sister Aloysius, the authoritarian principal at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx.

The time is 1964 and Vatican II has sent winds of change blowing through the Catholic Church. But Sister Aloysius has standards to uphold, and she will not be swayed by what she perceives to be fashionable trends.

Students require "constant educational, spiritual and human vigilance," she warns Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh), a tenderhearted, young nun willing to see the best in everyone.

The prickly Sister Aloysius holds suspicion in the highest regard and when personable Father Flynn (Brian F. O'Byrne) is thought to have become too friendly with a newcomer to the school, a troubled, black teenager, she is quick to reach a certain conclusion.

The youth is never seen on stage, but his presence is felt, thanks to Shanley's decision to have others talk about him, the only black student in a school filled with the children of Irish and Italian parents.

O'Byrne, a Tony winner last season for his scary performance as a serial killer in "Frozen," undergoes a complete transformation here. His cleric is charming and assured, a man who does his work with a large dose of compassion.

The priest eventually goes head to head with Sister Aloysius, who's determined to bring him down. She interviews the boy's distraught mother (Adriane Lenox) to confirm what she thinks she already knows. Without giving too much away, let's just say the plot's resolution will surprise you.

That's because Shanley, author of "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" and the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Moonstruck," doesn't create clear-cut heroes and villains. His characters, particularly Sister Aloysius, are far too nuanced. This nun is a strong woman who works in an even stronger, male-dominated organization, and she has learned to adapt.

The dialogue, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, is often quite funny, particularly in its depiction of parochial school education.

"Doubt" is Shanley's best play in years, a high point in an up-and-down career that has included such successful stage works as "Italian-American Reconciliation" and "Four Dogs and a Bone" and such movie duds as "Joe Versus the Volcano" and "Congo."

In some respects, "Doubt" resembles "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's drama about hysteria of another sort. It, too, deals with rumor and rigidity. And perhaps not coincidentally, Sister Aloysius displays a similarity to a certain newly re-elected president in her unwillingness to abandon preconceptions once the facts are placed before her.

Yet Shanley seems to be saying that doubt is the norm, the universal condition of man.

As Father Flynn says in a sermon which opens this marvelous play: "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone."


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