'Doubt' Goes Deeper Than Issue of Abuse

By Dottie Ashley
The Post and Courier
January 22, 2006§ion=artstravel

NEW YORK - "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty," says the young Catholic priest, Father Flynn, in the spellbinding Broadway show, "Doubt," winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar for the film "Moonstruck," has arranged this on-the-surface predictable story to surprise you like a cold dash of water in the face.

At first, "Doubt" appears only to dissect a ubiquitous subject in the news today: the sexual abuse inflicted by priests upon Catholic school boys.

But Shanley, a product of Catholic schools, has not penned a mere screed against the Catholic Church.

Rather, "Doubt" is set in 1964 in a Catholic school in the Bronx long before the subject of sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic priests ever came to the public's attention.

"Maybe we're not supposed to sleep so well," says the aged Sister Aloysius to a young nun, Sister James, who is worrying about having reported the suspicious behavior of Father Flynn, a teacher and basketball coach at the school.

In the role of Sister Aloysius, veteran actress Cherry Jones achieves the goal of all great actresses as she ceases to be Cherry Jones and uncannily becomes Sister Aloysius.

As the stern, demanding principal of the parochial school, Sister Aloysius is not the typical nun.

She was married once, but her husband was killed in World War II, which prompted her to enter the sisterhood.

Nor is she the saintly person who has given her life to the church and school. Instead, she comes across at times as a dominant, narrow-minded, bitter harridan who fails to have any rapport with the students. This makes us wonder if she is jealous of the easy friendships that Father Flynn has with his charges.

Sister Aloysius advises Sister James not to become personally involved with her students, to be suspicious of them all and to keep her distance.

This distresses Sister James, who is earnestly played by Heather Goldenhersh. Assuming a lisp, this young actress makes us pity Sister James even more when her superior smashes her dreams of personally connecting with her students.

But she dutifully takes Sister Aloysius' advice about being "suspicious of everyone."

When, after a meeting alone in the rectory with Father Flynn, the school's only black student comes back to class with alcohol on his breath, Sister James reports this incident to Sister Aloysius.

The story may seem to represent an open-and-shut case, especially with Father Flynn's intense interest in his students. But the superb actor Brian F. O'Byrne's warm, sensitive portrayal of Father Flynn makes us feel certain that he has decided merely to become the protector of the 12-year-old student.

But it is the revelation by Adriane Lenox in the role of Mrs. Muller, the boy's mother, that causes the mystery to deepen. When called to Sister Aloysius' office, where she is told about the suspicious behavior between her son and Father Flynn, Lenox combines Shanley's words and sterling acting to make an ostensibly black-and-white issue fade to gray. It is as if Shanley is telling us that there are some things about which we never will know the truth.

Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Supporting Actress, Lenox is so powerful, so convincing, yet so matter-of-fact, as she faces the formidable Sister Aloysius, that Shanley's writing takes on a universal message about the state of our educational system and our society in general. The heartbreaking way this desperate black mother explains what factors could make or break her son's tenable future makes us realize such a situation could happen today, more than 40 years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Doug Hughes' directing is so concise that this 90-minute play whizzes by, leaving us with a mystery to attempt to solve for ourselves. Leaving the theater, people could be heard disagreeing about whether or not Father Flynn is guilty.

Hughes and Shanley adhere to the adage, "Less is more." And do so with great aplomb.


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