Cherry Jones and Chris McGarry
in Doubt
(© Craig Schwartz)
Cherry Jones and Chris McGarry
in Doubt
(© Craig Schwartz)
"What do you do when you're not sure?" Whether spoken aloud or silently implied, this simple question is asked in John Patrick Shanley's Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt, which is now kicking off a 20-plus city tour at the Ahmanson Theatre with the impeccable, mesmerizing Cherry Jones recreating her Tony-winning turn. Virtually everyone involved in this gripping tale of suspected sexual indiscretion in a small Catholic school in the Bronx asks the question of themselves and each other -- everyone except Sister Aloysius (Jones), the principal of St. Nicholas and the self-appointed, unwavering moral compass for everyone around her. Equally importantly, Shanley also clearly and repeatedly asks the question of his audiences.

Part of the beauty of Shanley's writing is the unsettling mix he creates of clearly defined, uncrossable lines, which are then tainted by an aura of uncertainty that tempts their crossing. Doubt is set in 1964, an era of enormous social and political upheaval that dared a lot of lines be crossed. In his work at St. Nicholas, Father Flynn (a wonderful, earthy Chris McGarry) willingly crosses some of those lines; for contrary to the scary, inflexible teachings of Sister Aloysius, Father Flynn believes in a friendlier, more relaxed approach to dealing with his kids. He sees nothing wrong with making the annual Christmas pageant a bit more secular; nor does he see a problem with comforting a distressed child in private.

But there is an obvious line concerning sexual conduct that cannot be crossed, and the crux of the play's drama lies in the uncertainty of what really happened when Father Flynn spoke to troubled 12-year-old Donald Muller behind closed doors. Donald is the first African-American child to be admitted to the all-white school, a boy on the confusing brink of puberty, and someone in desperate need of a strong shoulder and a trustworthy friend. Did Father Flynn take advantage of a vulnerable boy to serve his own sexual needs, or does he refuse to disclose what happened behind those doors because he is morally and ethically bound by his vows to keep the confidences placed in his care?

Sister James (the amusing Lisa Joyce) is not certain what to make of Donald's strange behavior during class, which compels her to seek out the guidance of Sister Aloysius. But the stern, pragmatic principal embodies the culture of fear and domination that much of organized religion thrives upon, wherein the slightest misconduct or cause for concern demands unflinching and exacting punishment.

Though Sister Aloysius wholeheartedly believes that the actions she takes are in the best interest of protecting the children, she nevertheless does so with scant evidence of any wrongdoing on Flynn's part; she persecutes perceived evil based on mere suspicion. In her fiery confrontation with Father Flynn, both go full out in the name of protecting what they feel is right but cannot prove. And Sister Aloysius' hair-raising scene with Donald's mother (Tony winner Adriane Lenox) produces some gasp-inducing moments when the women's contradictory beliefs and the extremely directions of their separate paths become clear.

In lesser hands, it would be easy to make Sister Aloysius one-dimensional. But director Doug Hughes -- who also won a Tony for his efforts on Broadway -- helps Jones to make the most of the character's dry-as-dust wit and to mine the layers of her intractable character for the core humanity that makes her accessible.

If there's any nitpicking to be done here, it's the fact that this four-character play set within the confines of the St. Nicholas Church School would be better served in a more intimate space than the cavernous Ahmanson. In addition, because of the Bronx accents (Joyce's is particularly thick), the cast's diction is occasionally problematic; and the actors don't always pause for laughs, especially not in the first scene between Sister James and Sister Aloysius. But these minor problems can be fixed before the tour moves on to its next stop.

Doubt makes its point about the tremulous ground on which we all stand when anyone in authority can accuse and persecute another person without just provocation. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the show is its undeniable ability to provoke conversation and consideration. Doubt does not provide easy answers; it raises difficult questions and then allows us the dignity to decide for ourselves.