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Doubt, at MTC Stage I

1. The prospect of watching a play about a zealous nun hunting down a priest whom she suspects of abusing an eighth-grader was bleak, but our reluctance was overcome by the allure of another prospect, that of seeing Cherry Jones and Brían F. O'Byrne. Ms Jones might as well be crowned Queen of Broadway, because everything that she does is astonishing. Mr O'Byrne, lately seen in Frozen, has a way of being terrifying while sitting very still.

2. In the event, Doubt is not about whether the priest has being doing what the nun thinks he's being doing. It is, rather, the confrontation of a strong woman and a weak man. The man's strength is all bluster, a garment bestowed by society generally and by his employer specifically. The woman's weakness is entirely de jure - not an iota of facto. Cherry Jones plays Sister Aloysius, the principal of a Catholic grammar school in the Bronx, in the fall of 1964, who has a nose for, and an aversion to, showing off. Ms Jones, wearing no visible makeup, her features obscured by heavy eyeglasses, looks twenty years older than her 48 years. Her lips are often so pursed that they disappear. The stunt of her performance, if it's not improper to speak of stunts, is that the embodiment of Sister Aloysius's dry flatness, while effacing all of Ms Jones's own features, brings to the stage a mightily robust woman whom it is ultimately impossible not to like. Brían F. O'Byrne plays Father Flynn, a popular preacher with a knack for coaching basketball (and suspiciously long fingernails). Watching his air of easy bonhomie curdle in the glare of Sister Aloysius' grim certainty is as unnerving as the actor's awful exchange of stares with Swoozie Kurtz in Frozen.

3. Doubt gets going at a leisurely place, but, once the hostilities become overt, it hastens toward its end. Played without interruption, it runs for a little over ninety minutes. It could have been a much longer play, but it could not have been a better one. There are four characters altogether and three settings. The settings are the interior of a church (which we see only twice, during Father Flynn's sermons, which are brief but pointed), a courtyard between the convent and the rectory, and Sister Aloysius's office. The two other characters are a young teacher, Sister James, played by Heather Goldenhersh, and the eighth-grader's mother, Mrs Muller, played by Adriane Lenox. The tradition-bound, working-class ambience is never eclipsed, but it never becomes oppressive, either, partly because the action is so fleet and partly because all four characters, and especially Sister Aloysius, are so alive. That's another way of saying that they're not predictable. You think, as I say, that you know what Doubt is going to be about, but you're wrong.

4. At a pivotal point in the play, Sister Aloysius summons Mrs Muller to her office. This is Adriane Lenox's one scene, and if she does not steal it from Ms Jones, that's because Ms Jones hands it to her. Sister Aloysius hopes that Mrs Muller will be able to help her make her case against Father Flynn, and we prepare ourselves for an embarrassing conversation. It turns out, however, that Mrs Muller believes that her son is gay ("that way," as she puts it), so that if there is anything going on with the priest, that's okay, because the priest is taking an interest in her son - he has obviously shielded the boy from the attack of classmates - and, if the boy can only make it through the rest of the school year, he has a good shot at a good high school, and from there even a chance at college. That's what Mrs Muller wants for her boy.

5. The Mullers are the only black family in the parish.

6. So Mrs Muller is less than thrilled by Sister Aloysius's campaign, which, she foresees, will rebound adversely on her son. It has already cost him his place among the altar boys. In an earlier scene, Father Flynn has reluctantly disclosed that the boy was caught drinking communion wine, and that his was why Sister James had smelled alcohol on his breath. Father Flynn had kept the incident a secret because he was trying to help the boy; now that the cat's out of the bag, the boy can no longer serve. The boy's name, by the way, is David or Daniel or Douglas, and I note that Ben Brantley's review in the Times manages to skirt this detail, which of course is not provided by the Playbill.

7 While we're speaking of the review, I see also that Ben Brantley harbors some doubt about Father Flynn's culpability. Kathleen and I are wondering if he saw the same play. When, in the play's final moment, Sister Aloysius breaks down and acknowledges to Sister James that she has "such doubts," we didn't take her to be referring to Father Flynn and the Muller boy. 

8. A friend of ours who saw the play a few days before we did wondered if Catholics might understand all of the play's references better than she did. I suppose that the answer must be "yes." The instant Sister Aloysius referred slightingly to ball-point pens, Kathleen and I were reminded of the strict prohibition against such writing implements in grammar school; even cartridge pens were discouraged. Talking about this at dinner, we wondered if, quite aside from making for better penmanship, fountain pens presented children with the serious but not dangerous challenge of avoiding inky catastrophe. 

9. There is a longish, exposition-laden scene at the beginning of Doubt between the two nuns; Sister Aloysius is trying to sound out her suspicions of Father Flynn without planting ideas in Sister James's mind. The scene is so rich that it could have opened out into another play altogether, one that analyzed the dangers of doing something that you love. Sister James loves teaching, but she has not impressed Sister Aloysius very favorably. Sister Aloysius finds her naive and indulgent, but what's worse, she accuses her of acting in front of the class, "as if on a Broadway stage." Sister Aloysius is deeply suspicious of the search for satisfaction. At the same time, she is never unpleasant to Sister James. Just dry. We are still laughing at this point. Heather Goldenhersh has no trouble showing us that one can be an ingénue and a Sister of Charity.

10. Sister Aloyisius's is unpleasant to Father Flynn in the way that a tornado is unpleasant: heedless of the consequences. Her principal assault weapon is really nothing more than startling candor. To get him into her office - as a priest, he is not accountable to her in any way - Sister Aloysius stages a meeting, with Sister James present, too, as custom requires, ostensibly about the Christmas pageant. The priest and the principal fall into a not-very serious argument about the propriety of singing a "secular" song, such as "Frosty the Snowman," at the event (Sister Aloysius discerns paganism in the lyrics), but after she has turned the discussion to the Muller boy, and a flustered but not unconfident Father Flynn asks her if this was the point of the meeting, Sister Aloysius does not demur. "Yes," she says very clearly, showing her hand. Well, showing that she has a hand.

11. She also does a bit of bluffing. In a second interview with Father Flynn, one that over her objections he insists upon conducting without the presence of a third party, she tells him, as he is about to storm angrily out of her office, that she has telephoned the last parish to which he was posted (he has been at three parishes in five years). This revelation brings the priest to a dead stop. He turns and comes back into the office. He starts over, this time rather more meekly. He asks her where her compassion is. "Nowhere that you can get at!" she hurls back, in what is not this play's first reminiscence of Elektra. At least twice in this scene, Father Flynn tries physical intimidation out on Sister Aloysius, but she does not so much shrink as recoil from the proximity of an unpleasant smell. His is, to all intents and purposes, simply an overgrown eighth-grader to her. In the next and last scene, she tells Sister James that she made no such phone call. Had he done nothing wrong, Father Flynn would not have reacted as he did. We remember him, sitting alone at Sister Aloysius's desk (which he has irritatingly commandeered in both his interviews with her), telephoning the bishop's office.

12. What Sister Aloysius probably has "such doubts" about is a system that whisks Father Flynn away from Sister Aloysius's suspicions and makes him the pastor, no less, at another parish.

13. Doubt, directed by Doug Hughes, will undoubtedly be a hit for MTC (it is showing at the Club's Stage I), and perhaps it will move to Broadway. The quietly ingenious sets are by John Lee Beatty; the costumes, somewhat predetermined but with a neat period outfit for Mrs Muller and a gorgeous (hmm!) chasuble for Father Flynn's sermons, are by Catherine Zuber. Lighting is by David van Tieghem and Stephen Gabis provided very effective dialect coaching.

PS: For anyone whose thoughts are drifting, impiously enough, to Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, there is a note "from the playwright" that appears beneath the listing of the cast: "This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?" (December 2004)

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