How Sure Can You Be That You're Right?
'Doubt' Questions Where Moral Line Truly Lies

By Damien Jaques
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Chicago IL]
January 15, 2007

Chicago - Writing a play in the early part of the decade about the priest pedophilia problem in the Catholic church might seem obvious and perhaps a little too easy.

The ethical issue is black and white, good vs. evil, and not a subject that attracts credible conflicting opinion.

But in the Broadway hit "Doubt," veteran playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley shrewdly used the national scandal as a canvas on which he painted a bigger picture that raises complex and difficult moral questions.

Lisa Joyce (left) is the eager-to-please Sister James and Cherry Jones the domineering Sister Aloysius with a priest in her sights in "Doubt."
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Black and white is seen only as the colors of the clerical garb worn by the nuns and priests at St. Nicholas Church in the Bronx.

Shanley's dramatic palette consists of subtle shadings and tones.

The national touring production of "Doubt" that has taken up temporary residence in Chicago leaves no doubt that the drama deserves the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award it received in 2005.

Broadway leading ladies rarely go on the road with their hit show, but Cherry Jones is venturing out of New York with this production, and it quickly becomes apparent why she won the best actress in a play Tony for her work in "Doubt."

This limited engagement is more than worthy of a drive down I-94 for Milwaukee theater-goers.

"Doubt" is set in 1964, when Catholic elementary schools were still run with tough love - emphasis on the tough.

Sister Aloysius is a crusty older nun who rules St. Nicholas School with an unflinching certainty about her convictions and regulations.

She's the principal and chief intimidator. The nun would add that she is the primary protector of the children in her charge.

For reasons that are never revealed, Sister Aloysius suspects that Father Flynn, a priest assigned to the parish, may have an improper interest in boys in her school, and when she plants that suspicion in the mind of a young nun who is eager to please, trouble follows.

Sister James, the rookie teacher, believes she has spotted something unusual about the priest's relationship with a specific student.

The principal confronts Father Flynn in an angry meeting, and as he defends himself, we watch her turn into a bulldog determined to expose him.

Pedophilia is a commanding moral issue, but so is a person's right to his good reputation.

Sister Aloysius takes it upon herself to become a prosecutor as well as judge and jury.

Father Flynn may be destroying lives if he is involved in inappropriate behavior with the boys, but she could destroy his life if she is wrong about him.

At what price to others do we protect children?

The ethical dilemmas here become even thornier after the mother of the lad Father Flynn may be abusing reveals something about her son.

As Sister Aloysius continues her single-minded campaign against the priest, we must ask if we are witnessing a search for truth and justice or a vendetta. The priest has an acceptable answer for every question the nun raises.

What you bring to the theater affects how you perceive "Doubt," and opinions about the behavior of both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn vary greatly. There is no smoking gun to prove the nun right. It is up to us to decide who, if anyone, is the sinner here.

Along the way, we are required to consider if decency, empathy and compassion have a place in the search for moral corruption.

And what about collateral damage? Hurting innocent bystanders during the hunt is also up for discussion.

While Shanley writes about a specific crisis in a religious institution, he also explores the more global concept of moral certainty in a complicated and enigmatic world.

Only a small leap is required to apply what we observe on stage to contemporary politics and foreign affairs.

Shanley and actress Jones perfectly re-create the tone of many Catholic grade schools in the 1950s and part of the '60s.

It's an arid environment, and Sister Aloysius comports herself with a stiff, authoritarian manner. Jones expertly portrays this with her voice and body language.

Chris McGarry, who was the standby Father Flynn in the Broadway production, has the authentic bearing and presence of a '60s priest here.

His likability is a contrast to Jones' nun, but it does not overwhelm the possibility her accusations against him are true.

Caroline Stefanie Clay, a standby during "Doubt's" off-Broadway run, is in only one scene as the aforementioned boy's mother, and she nails it with trenchant clarity. Lisa Joyce, a member of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's cast for "The Crucible" in 2004, is a believably wide-eyed and innocent Sister James.

"Doubt" continues through Jan. 28 at the LaSalle Bank Theatre (formerly the Shubert Theatre), 18 W. Monroe St. Tickets range in price from $20 to $72 and are available at Ticketmaster outlets, by phone at (312) 902-1400 and at


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