The narrative in Doubt concerns a series of events in a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx in 1964. The real subject of the play, however, is the different interpretations people place on the same events, or their ideas of the same events, in a highly charged situation where it is necessary to make a decision in the face of incomplete information. What is the right course of action when you suspect that a child is being harmed, but you have no proof and know you probably never will? When is individual certainty unsupported by objective evidence a force for good, and when is it a force for evil? The genius of Doubt lies in engaging the audience in these questions while never resolving them: everyone I spoke to after the play had formed a conclusion, although not always the same conclusion, and could cite evidence from the play to support their interpretation.
The central character, Sister Aloysius, is the principal of St. Nicholas School. As such, she has responsibility for the well-being of the children attending it, yet she is keenly aware of how little real power she holds as a woman within the Catholic Church. She suspects that a priest, Father Flynn, has molested one of the male students, Donald Muller; this suspicion is based primarily on her intuitions, plus the scant evidence she can collect by questioning Sister James (Lisa Joyce), a young nun teaching at St. Nicholas. The situation is complicated by the fact that Donald is the first African American student to attend St. Nicholas, and also by a fact about Donald revealed in a pivotal interview between Sister Aloysius and Donald's mother.
The deck is stacked against Sister Aloysius, and not merely because she is a woman in a hierarchy ruled by men. Shanley has deliberately made her unattractive: a curmudgeon clad in the dark habit of the Sisters of Charity, Sister Aloysius believes that Frosty the Snowman promotes a pagan belief in magic, and she cautions Sister James not to show too much enthusiasm when teaching history lest she encourage students to favor it over other subjects. But Sister Aloysius has the courage of her convictions: once she has reached a conclusion in her own mind, she pursues what she believes to be the truth without measure or limit. Whether you think she is more like Inspector Javert or Erin Brockovich may depend more on your beliefs than on the evidence presented in this play, because Doubt remains deliberately ambiguous on the key events in question.
In contrast, Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) is young, handsome, personable, progressive in his educational ideals, and completely comfortable in the position of privilege afforded him as a priest within the Church. In addition, Shanley affords him three opportunities to directly address the audience on the subject of doubt, although whether he is entirely sincere in those speeches is yet another ambiguity within the play. Despite these advantages, Father Flynn does not necessarily win the day: I left the theater convinced that he was guilty of impropriety, if not of a crime for which he could be convicted by judge and jury. However, I believe Sister Aloysius was also guilty: not of falsely accusing Father Flynn, but of refusing to see beyond her own limited point of view and of considering only a subset of the issues at stake.
The interview between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller is the pivotal scene in Doubt (despite being onstage for only about six minutes, Adriane Lenox won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Featured Actress for the role of Mrs. Muller in the Broadway production). Mrs. Muller is aware, in a way that Sister Aloysius refuses to acknowledge, that the world is an unfair place and that judging what is true and right without regard to the messy realities of other people's lives may do more harm than good. Above all, Mrs. Muller does not want Donald to be hurt in what she perceives as Sister Aloysius' crusade against Father Flynn. As with Sister Aloysius, your judgment of Mrs. Muller will depend on your prior beliefs as much as on the material presented during the production of Doubt.
Doubt is directed by Doug Hughes, who won the Tony Award for the Broadway production. He rightly places the focus on Shanley's words and the philosophical drama developing onstage. The technical aspects of this production serve the same end: a revolving set by John Lee Beatty allows rapid transition between scenes, and music by David Van Tieghem and lighting by Pat Collins mark the changes scene changes without obtruding on the text.
Doubt: A Parable will be performed at the Fox Theatre in Saint Louis through February 25. Ticket information is available from the Fox Box Office at 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com. The next production at the Fox will be Edward Scissorhands, which will be presented February 27-March 11.
Director: Doug Hughes