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Brían F. O'Byrne and Cherry Jones in Doubt
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In Doubt, the third play of this month's impromptu John Patrick Shanley Festival, the year is 1964 and Pope Paul VI has only recently succeeded Pope John XXIII, who had convened the Second Vatican Council and changed the face of Catholicism. He hadn't, however, quite changed the stony face of Sister Aloysius, who presides over the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. The autocratic nun, played by Cherry Jones, believes in strict adherence to conservative rules. As such, she will immediately be a familiar figure to Catholics educated during the period when it wasn't priests but nuns who were talked about as potentially abusive to students -- whether or not in the name of fostering learning. Sister Aloysius strides through the play in a floor-length habit with no doubts about Catholicism or about the weaknesses of its practitioners, and she expresses quiet satisfaction when told that the students are terrified of her.

A continent of certainty in a sea of doubt, Sister Aloysius reveals her implacable nature in a contest of wills with Father Flynn (Brían F. O'Byrne) when she's tipped to a student's odd behavior by a nervous younger nun, Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh). Meaning no harm, Sister James mentions that a student named Donald Muller, the only African-American at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton-founded school, had recently returned to class with alcohol on his breath and looking upset after a talk with Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius concludes, on the basis of faith in her own instincts, that Father Flynn has seduced the boy. She sets out to extract an admission from the astonished priest and refuses to accept the explanation that he'd held the secluded chat because he'd caught the Muller boy drinking altar wine and wanted to keep the incident quiet, since the consequence of such a transgression would be the boy's removal from his altar boy position. Father Flynn contends that such ejection would lead to Muller's being ostracized more than he already is.

Although Sister James accepts the situation as described, Sister Aloysius doesn't. She becomes further convinced that Father Flynn is a pedophile when she summons the boy's mother (Adriane Lenox), to her spare office and learns that the lad is homosexual. (Because of this proclivity, he's regularly beaten by his father.) Relentlessly confronting Father Flynn -- whom the audience sees forthrightly sermonizing on uncertainty as well as gruffly coaching the school's basketball team -- Sister Aloysius won't accept his repeated insistence that he's innocent of untoward action.

The chilling beauty of the play originates with the specific example that Shanley employs to moot one of organized religion's most recurring issues: the place that doubt has in the minds and hearts of the faithful. Refusing to supply a pat answer to the ever-present quandary, Shanley is cunning as he pits a self-proclaimed religious woman who brooks no reservations about her beliefs against a clear-cut religious man who does. The playwright doesn't confine the argument to the philosophical wrestling match on stage; before the intermissionless 90-minute play ends, he's provided information on Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn that leaves patrons grappling with their own doubts.

Heather Goldenhersh and Cherry Jones in Doubt
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Initially, Sister Aloysius's conviction seems excessive, but Shanley cleverly drops biographical facts about the woman's life that support her worldliness: She'd been married before taking her vows and became a nun after her husband's death. Moreover, flouting church procedure, Sister Aloysius gathers background on Father Flynn that throws into question his protestations of guiltlessness. (The man has the kind of résumé, including numerous transfers, that regularly appear in today's news stories of errant priests shuttled from one parish to another.) Frustrated in the face of Sister Aloysius's furious pursuit, Flynn can't or won't respond thoroughly to her findings. So, did he or didn't he? Only Shanley knows for sure. He makes his case for doubt so well that even Sister Aloysius eventually shows signs of embracing it.
And Cherry Jones makes every second of the role count. Though she has frequently overused a simpering smile in past assignments, Jones plays Sister Aloysius as a woman who controls her life by smiling sparingly. Brían F. O'Byrne, direct from winning multiple awards for playing an acknowledged serial killer in Frozen, O'Byrne may seem obvious casting as a possible child molester; but as another of Shanley's psychologically damaged outer-borough Bronx men, his performance is quite different. Father Flynn's slow crumbling is galvanizing, and Byrne's Bronx accent is strong and clear. (Stephen Gabis is the dialect coach). Heather Goldenhersh's naïveté as Sister James and Adriane Lenox's painful awareness as Mrs. Muller are fully realized. Doug Hughes directs with his usual probing excellence; if he decided against taking the Public Theater's artistic director post in order to continue to do this kind of subtle work as often as possible, we're all fortunate. About the effectiveness of his art, and that of the cast and John Patrick Shanley, there's no doubt.

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