Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, arrives at the National Theatre in Washington with its magnificent original star, Cherry Jones, and three other sterling performers. Shanley has done a remarkable thing in this 2004 drama: he has wrought a story of moral ambiguity and choices that manages never to tip its hand as to which side of the issue the playwright is on.
The play takes place in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, but the issues it raises are universal. Sister Aloysius (Jones), the steely principal, has concerns about Father Flynn (Chris McGarry), primarily as they relate to his friendship with the school's first African-American student. The beauty of Doubt is that, in the course of ninety compact minutes without intermission, the question of guilt or innocence remains fluid; the audience may side with one or the other without ever reaching a definite conclusion.
Sister Aloysius is strict, and determined to maintain the old-fashioned rules: students in her school must write with fountain pens rather than ballpoints, for example, and she considers "Frosty the Snowman" a heretical story of pagan magic. She chastises the young teaching nun Sister James (Lisa Joyce) for showing what Sister Aloysius considers undue enthusiasm in her classes, and warns against complacency. At the same time, the older nun occasionally shades the truth for what seems like good reasons.
The question is whether Sister Aloysius distrusts Father Flynn because he is truly a predator, or if she has more personal reasons: his friendliness contrasted with her remote authority; his interest in community outreach, under the edicts of Vatican II, instead of the traditional reserve and mystery of the church; or simply the working-class bluntness and arrogance in his nature. When she invites him and Sister James for tea, he sits in her chair and asks for three lumps of sugar; she does not use sugar, and explains that she put away the sugar bowl for Lent and forgot about it.
Jones has created her performance like a sculptor: every gesture, every look, every word she speaks helps to build the characterization. The easy way to play Sister Aloysius would be as a martinet with little interior life, but Jones is incapable of a one-dimensional performance.
McGarry offers a strong counterbalance: at first determined, down-to-earth, and – one would think – a fine man to have around, later more desperate as he tries to deal with a situation he can't control. Joyce beautifully depicts a young, unworldly woman forced under pressure to develop her own sense of morality.
Caroline Stefanie Clay, playing the mother of the African-American boy, is riveting in her one scene with Sister Aloysius. She conveys yet another side of the issue, one that seems unthinkable but, to this woman, is the best way to deal with a difficult situation.
Director Doug Hughes has maintained the crispness of the production, which flows on John Lee Beatty's flexible set.
The National Theatre