Speaking of faces, three new ones are starring in the prolific dramatist's Pulitzer Prize-winning work, a crackling behind-the-sanctuary clash between the principal of a Bronx parochial school and the priest who she is convinced has sexually abused the establishment's first and only African-American student. The great British actress Eileen Atkins is now Sister Aloysius, Ron Eldard (back on Broadway after gracing the underrated TV series Blind Justice) is Father Flynn, and rising film star Jena Malone is Sister James. (Adriane Lenox continues in the role of Mrs. Muller, for which she won a Tony Award.)
In her past stage appearances, Atkins has made a habit of acting circles around fellow cast members while never ever doing anything that even begins to smack of upstaging. She does it by never telling an acting lie. It's a simple, deceptive technique that's distinguished her among actors today. Her long, gaunt face --with its thin-lipped, taut mouth -- serves her well here as the unrelenting Sister Aloysius. Atkins has an intelligent, wry, and unforgiving look that lends itself to the intelligent, wry, and unforgiving humor Shanley has written into the character, a woman with a steely attitude towards her faith who can stare unflinchingly into anyone's eye while declaring her beliefs. In addition, Atkins has the look required to conjure the sort of nun that all Catholic school children shrink from the minute she rounds the corner and catches sight of them.
Atkins uses an accent that's difficult to pin down. Shanley says little about Sister Aloysius's background, other than that she married before taking vows and lost a husband in World War II -- the play is set in 1964 -- so it's conceceivable she could have developed her speech patterns anywhere. (That none of the characters have extensive past histories is a minor drawback in Shanley's drama.) While her delivery is quirky, it doesn't affect a performance that is properly devastating right through to Sister Aloysius' final minute. That's when the ironic developments Shanley has up his sleeve bring her to a new personal revelation.
There will be those theatergoers inclined to compare Atkins to her predecessor, Cherry Jones, (who, like Shanley, snagged practically every theater award in sight.) Perhaps the most noticeable difference is that Atkins seems to be in late middle age, whereas Jones appeared to be in earlier middle age. And perhaps because nuns so often seem to be ageless, the role accommodates either choice. The other major difference is that while Jones saw Sister Aloysius as someone so self-contained that she rarely used her hands, Atkins' performance includes many more gestures. Her pointed finger is a true caution. Otherwise, the performances are on a par with each other.
Eldard has a handsome face with particularly expressive eyes, which serve him well as he transforms from a priest grappling with genuine religious doubt to a man whose calling is suddenly jeopardized. In a play mostly devoid of smiles, Eldard has the only sequence -- a chat with the boys' basketball team that he coaches -- where a spontaneous laugh can be indulged. That lightness proves to be a nice contrast to the despair he must eventually convey as Father Flynn unravels. At the moment, Eldard's concern with sounding "Noo Yawk" is a bit too deliberate; but the more he plays the role, the more he's likely to seem as authentic as former Bronx schoolboy Shanley is in his assured writing.
Malone is adept at suggesting the doubt the young nun is having about herself and her teaching abilities. As an unexpected plus, she has a long, narrow face similar to Atkins, creating the serendipitous suggestion that Sister James is what Sister Aloysius may have been before she grew so sure of herself and so damaging to others.
The craftily-executed production remains directed with a sharp and unwavering hand by Doug Hughes. What he and this cast certify above all else is that Shanley's heartfelt, angry, and compassionate play is still the best one on Broadway. It insists that just as change may be the only constant, doubt may be our most valuable certainty.
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