John Patrick Shanley's Doubt Reinterpreted at George Street
After two viewings of the play, it seems clear that the contrivances and melodrama which have contributed substantially to its popularity are more the stuff of high class entertainment than of serious, illuminating theatre.
The 90-minute, one act Doubt is set at a Bronx Catholic parochial grade school in 1964. The head of the school is the no-nonsense Sister Aloysius. She is convinced that Father Flynn, a parish priest who counsels the students, has been molesting an 8th grade boy, Donald Muller (the school's fist Negro admission), whom he has befriended. The good-hearted 8th grade teacher Sister James is enlisted to provide her observations. Called to school for a meeting with Sister Aloysius is Mrs. Muller, Donald's mother. The central focus of Doubt is the battle of wills between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. The post-performance focus of critics and audiences has been the debate over whether or not Father Flynn molested the boy.
Although, after initially viewing Doubt, I felt certain as to the answer to that question, I now am convinced that as written, Father Flynn's guilt or innocence is unknowable. Furthermore, there are inconsistencies and elisions in the script in order to make this so. The result is that audiences are being directed to concentrate on a tertiary reference to the play's title.
The principal reference to Doubt in the play's title is stated in the beautifully written sermon delivered by Father Flynn which opens the play. It is the doubt that surely assails all good people with religious (as well as secular) faith. Father Flynn posits that not only is one not different or alone when troubled with doubt, but, to the contrary, it is doubt which provides one the opportunity for growth and deeper understanding.
As interpreted by Ann Dowd and her director Anders Cato, Sister Aloysius is as unremittingly cruel and harsh as her dialogue. Her Aloysius has no concern for the 8th grader; she is totally driven by her determination to prove the inherent evil of men (and dismissive of any information which doesn't support her view). As interpreted in New York by Cherry Jones, the good sister tempered this dialogue with gestures and intonations which showed that she was concerned for the boy and she read her most outrageous lines with a humorous undertone that showed us that we knew that her attitudes needed amelioration. Her observations as to Father Flynn's conduct seemed based on experience, strong intuition and keen eyed observation. Ann Dowd does what she does very well and her interpretation is certainly valid. However, an evil, one-note Sister Aloysius is less satisfying than a more subtlety rounded one.
Dylan Chalfy's Father Flynn is so good and caring that he would have to be a sociopath to be able to project such forthright and foursquare wholesomeness to actually be a child molester. In the scene with Sister Aloysius where he loses his footing and begs her for mercy (this scene convinces some of his guilt), a charitable approach to Father Flynn would accept that he has an unselfish, humanitarian reason for not wanting his past posting investigated. Earlier Father Flynn appropriately had withheld information about Donald in order to protect him.
To discuss any of this further would spoil the play for anyone who has not yet seen it. Suffice it to say that the information provided by author John Patrick Shanley makes Father Flynn's guilt or innocence unknowable. However, the shadings (or lack of them) in the performances of the priest and Sister Aloysius and, in some cases, our own world view can lead us in one direction or another. This is all very interesting, but leads to inconsistencies in their behavior. There are late developments which should be taken into consideration that we can discuss after we have all seen the play, as well as the fact that Father Flynn is the spokesperson for Shanley's main theme.
Don't say that I didn't warn you that Doubt includes a positive view of the possibility of a man/boy sexual connection between Father Flynn and Donald. It is Rosalyn Coleman as the boy's mother who presents this shockingly plausible sounding view in her very convincing performance in a scene which requires her to display very high emotion. Meghan Andrews nicely projects the unease and weakness of Sister James, whose instincts run counter to Sister Aloysius.
There is a richly detailed, complex revolving set which takes us from the schools interior garden to Sister Aloysius' office and to other points around the school. It is so well and fully designed as to be integral to the effectiveness of the production. Although I personally would have preferred different interpretive choices, there can be no doubt but that Anders Cato's direction is crisp, strong, and sharply defined.
Doubt is one of the best of recent American plays. It is a must see for literate theatergoers .
Doubt continues performances (Tues.-Sat. 8 PM/ Sun. 7 PM except 12/23 / Mats: Sat. & Sun. 2 PM - except 12/8) through December 23, 2007 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org.
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley; directed by Anders Cato