"Doubt" at the Civic Theatre

By Welton Jones
November 1, 2006

A robed priest, lighted softly in front of stained-glass windows, delivers a homily as the opening scene of John Patrick Shanley's drama "Doubt," now at the Civic Theatre, and nearly the first words are:

"Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, we all..."

Now that's efficient play-writing. The period is established exactly with one phrase. Each part of Shanley's work is like that. Consider the movie "Moonstruck": One of the most lyrical screenplays ever written creates every character with a mere flick of the brush, yet they tend to dwell forever in memory.

Here, Shanley has turned his formidable efficiency on the anguish of a world ruled by a patriarchal priesthood pledged to celibacy yet humanly vulnerable to misbehavior.

Four characters and 90 minutes is all he really needs. There is some somber scenery by John Lee Beatty and supportive lighting by Pat Collins but this a play dominated by content, not form.

The so-impressive Cherry Jones plays a teaching nun, the principal of St. Nichols Church School in the Bronx, as if personally called to represent that entire legendary sisterhood. She has been driven grimly into the conviction that discipline is what leads to God, that satisfaction is a vice ("Do you think Socrates was satisfied?") and that Frosty the Snowman really is a diabolic plot.

One of her teachers, played by Lisa Joyce as a dewy innocent not quite aware of the hormonal storms raging through her eighth-grade class, confesses discomfort at the attentions being given to the school's only black boy by the parish priest.

As played with Irish charm, rooster strutting and just the faintest sheen of priss by Chris McGarry, this father links dirty fingernails with spinal meningitis in one of those insufferable cautionary tales adults hurl at children.

What nudged the teacher was the boy's unusual drowsiness after a private moment with the pastor, plus what she thought was the smell of alcohol. Not much, but enough to totally convince the principal that she is working with a rogue priest.

And, when Cherry Jones is assigned total conviction, she rides it to victory, her big, round face frozen at stern, her great hooting voice whacking the world's knuckles with the Ruler of God.

Joyce is a sweet foil for Jones and McGarry a loud and formidable opponent, able to cast the controversy first as rigidity versus compassion and then, with chilling conviction, as a crusade not just mean-spirited but hopeless, given his status in such a male-dominated world. (At each meeting in her office, he calmly occupies her chair.)

Every wave of high-energy defense and counter-attack just break harmlessly against the rock of the principal's absolute conviction. And though justice of a sort is achieved, it's too mild and too inconclusive to be reassuring.

But Shanley isn't satisfied with just a drama of confrontation. To a veteran of a Catholic education like himself, the realities are far more layered and complex than these people can hope to master. Both priest and nun make excellent points but so does the boy's mother, played carefully by Adriane Lenox as a quietly desperate intimidated wife trying to steer her child to college and past his father's suspicion of the boy's genuine maleness.

Ultimately, the truth remains elusive but, more disturbingly, the truth might not have been what mattered most in this deplorable situation not necessarily caused by the tensions within the church but certainly not helped by them.

Director Doug Hughes was Shanley's sober and effective servant/partner in finding the staging necessities, from concept to details, needed for such efficiency. His work even transfers to the broad reaches of the Civic Theatre stage fairly well.

But hurry up, please, with the renovation of the Balboa.


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