John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is a Provocative Drama with a First Rate Cast
Doubt is set against the backdrop of a Bronx Irish-Italian Catholic school in 1964 headed by Mother Superior Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) who rules the school with an iron fist. The stern nun believes the teachings of the church that were prevalent at the turn of the 20th century, that human nature is corrupt and it was up to the church to un-corrupt the children. Sister Aloysius is so zealous that she hates the annual Christmas pageant at the school because she caught a young 8th grader playing the Virgin Mary with lipstick on her face. Her diatribe on the teaching of children with young liberal Sister Mary James (Lisa Joyce) in the first act shows the true nature of this fanatical nun.
Shanley's sharp 90-minute drama was inspired by his memories of attending a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Charity. One member of his family was molested by a priest and the drama moves toward the explosive subject of pedophilia within the church. However, the play does it in only terms of the questions it raises regarding conclusions and perceptions of guilt.
Doubt opens with a monologue by Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) in full vestments talking about doubt. He says, "What do you do when you're not sure?" Since it has been only one year since the assassination of President Kennedy he realizes many in the parish are in need of spiritual love and healing. The priest says "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone."
Father Flynn's sermon triggers something in Sister Aloysius' mind since she has been suspicious of the easy going Irish priest being overly friendly with the junior high members of the school. She also suspects something is wrong because "the priest has long fingernails." In the brilliant first confrontation between the righteous Mother Superior and the naive Sister James, Sister Aloysius convinces the inexperienced nun to be her spy on the comings and goings of Father Flynn.
Sister James comes back to report that Father Flynn has become very friendly with the 12-year-old altar boy Donald Muller (not seen in the drama), the only black child in the school. The inexperienced sister reports that the priest called the young boy into the rectory for a private discussion and the young lad came back visibly shaken with alcohol on his breath. Sister Aloysius appears happy that she now has a case against the young priest. According to Father Flynn's testimony, the young boy was caught drinking the altar wine after mass and was called to the rectory to discuss his problems. Even with this fact staring her in the face, the stern sister refuses to believe these were the circumstances.
Doubt focuses on the principal's witch hunt that stretches even her limits of honesty. The zealous nun starts to build a case against the free-thinking priest by calling the churches where the priest had served previously.
Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are strong personalities, and their conflict makes this a story with truth-seeking allegations beyond the play genre. The brilliant word battle between the obsessive sister and the suspicious priest is not about whether the priest has been doing what the nun believes is happening but a confrontation between a strong woman and a weak man. It is up to the audience to discern who is telling the truth (even the last words of the Mother Superior in the play are very provoking.)
Cherry Jones (Tony winner for best actress last year) electrifies the stage each time she appears. The actress wears no makeup, has overly heavy eyeglasses and hunches her shoulders, embracing the dry flatness of Sister Aloysius. She has clipped vigorous speech and a way of hugging herself into a rock-strong fortification against the words of others. She does a superb piece of acting as she makes you grow to a point of almost hatred toward the character. This is acting at its finest.
Chris McGarry (New York Doubt, Salome, Sailor's Song, Defiance) is convincing as the popular priest who coaches the basketball team. He has an air of easy bonhomie that the children love. His beautiful lilting Irish accented voice makes you like him immediately. He delivers three monologues in the form of two sermons and a pep talk to the unseen students in the locker room of the school gym with a manly charm that establishes the priest's magnetism. One can see in his final battle of words that he is a weak man and you wish he would stand up to the bullying of the nun.
Lisa Joyce (New York Red Light Winter) as Sister James displays a youthful fervor in the role. Even when she deals with her loss of innocence as the play progresses, she adds to drama's power. Adriane Lenox (original cast plus Ain't Misbehavin, Dreamgirls, Kiss Me, Kate) gives a shattering cameo as the mother of young Donald in her one dynamic scene with the unfriendly Mother Superior. She brings great dignity to the mother's painful viewpoint.
Set design by John Lee Beatty is basically the same as the New York production. Some of the sets seem lost on the big stage, even with the cutting off of sections on each side of the stage. Lighting by Pat Collins is excellent as lights fade behind the stained glass windows when the office slides into place.
Doubt is an intimate play and it should be played in a small theatre rather than a barn of a theatre like the Golden Gate. However, it is still worth seeing the provocative drama, especially with the tour de force of acting on the part of the peerless cast.
Doubt is playing at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco through December 3rd. For ticket call 415-512-7770 or go to www.shnsf.com,
Edward Scissorhands is currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre through December 10th.