Doubt A Parable by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Pat Collins. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Cast: Cherry Jones, Brían F. O'Byrne. With Heather Goldenhersh, Adriane Lenox.
With the opening of Doubt on Broadway, it's time to revisit the most tantalizing question of the season: Did he or didn't he?
For audiences who see the show now at the Walter Kerr, as was the case for so many who saw it Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this season, simply asking the question isn't enough. Painstakingly examining facial expressions, watching every nervous tic, and analyzing line deliveries for any hint of nuance are a major part of the experience. When is the last time such minute details seemed of such crucial importance? For that matter, when is the last time a new play encouraged so much honest, vocal, public discussion of its mysteries?
A play this thoughtful, this well-crafted, this passionate is hard to ignore and even harder to resist. Yes, it addresses issues of great meaning to many: faith, truthfulness, determination to do what's right at any cost. But those are incidental concerns. The play's specific story - about a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, where a priest might be carrying on an inappropriate relationship with the school's lone black student - is also beside the point. The real drama comes from how you, like the characters, deal with a situation that can't be fully understood because it cannot be interpreted in only one way.
When you're faced with a situation like this, for which there is no single clear answer, with whom do you identify? The priest, Father Flynn (Brían F. O'Byrne), who loves teaching and takes his faith seriously, but makes perhaps too many mistakes? The school's principal, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), who uses all of her education, experience, and personal beliefs to come to a conclusion, and then sticks to her guns in order to protect the children at any cost? School teacher Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh), who can too easily see both sides of the question? Or, the black student's mother, Mrs. Muller (Adriane Lenox), who knows elements of the truth, but might let the consequences slide in pursuit of a possible greater good?
These are all exquisitely crafted portraits that become even more true to life as the characters (and by extension you) examine the available evidence to deduce what about the situation is known, what is unknown, and what is simply likely. As Shanley doesn't waste a single idea, line, or even pause, everything becomes vitally important, whether Sister Aloysius's reactions toward a suggestion that "Frosty the Snowman" be sung in the school's Christmas pageant, or the number of sugar cubes Father Flynn puts in his tea. Not even the most innocuous statement or off-the-cuff-laugh line can be taken for granted.
Doubt has an ideal director in Doug Hughes, who's proven (particularly in last season's Frozen) his uncommon skill in magnifying or reducing moments to the precisely appropriate theatrical size. Hughes is always strongly in tune with Shanley: Confidential conversations can bear the weight of the world, while titanic confrontations lurk in the shadows even if their subjects are the most serious imaginable. (John Lee Beatty's sliding set pieces, which contrast religious austerity with educational whimsy, also help; so do Pat Collins's lights, Catherine Zuber's ecclesiastical costumes, and David Van Tieghem's haunting original music and sound design.)
Even more important are the performances, with Jones and O'Byrne central as the formidable ideological opponents. O'Byrne so thoroughly channels parental good-naturedness that when he explodes in anger, it's like a betrayal of a cherished friend; Jones's cool, patrician façade betrays so few hints of emotion that even the slightest change in the tone of her voice, the pressure of her pursed lips, or the position of an eyebrow speak volumes about Sister Aloysius's inner workings. And Lenox, in the play's smallest role, gives a movingly desperate performance as Mrs. Muller, who's exhausted, resigned, and set in her ways much as Sister Aloysius is.
But over the course of the 90-minute, intermissionless play, Goldenhersh's Sister James proves the most important. She's bullied in many ways by Sister Aloysius, exhorted to eschew emotions in favor of stern authority to keep her students in line. Yet she can't help but be attracted to Father Flynn's free-wheeling, modern ways, though she's intensely aware of the troubles that can cause. Goldenhersh perfectly embodies her character's confusion, and creates a pathetic yet likable figure who's the voice of reason and sensibility caught between liberal and conservative extremes. She needs to know, as ultimately do we, whether Father Flynn is responsible.
Of course, there is no correct answer; there's not even necessarily a consistent one. After viewing the Off-Broadway production, I had unshakable feelings about my interpretation of the play's events, but after seeing the show on Broadway, I sensed that this time the opposite was probably true. A colleague of mine had a similar experience, but came to the opposite conclusions both times; still another, who missed the show Off-Broadway, had a fascinating take on the story that I've heard no one else espouse.
Shanley, Hughes, Jones, O'Byrne, and the rest have conspired to create a theatrical experience so rich, so layered with possibilities, that it continues to change and grow, to challenge and confuse us. This is the rare play with a message so strongly developed that it excludes no one merely because they see the situation differently. Doubt even encourages that kind of probing examination, and stands up to close scrutiny better than most new plays in recent memory.
But what's the truth? We don't know. We can't know. In the end, it doesn't matter. Dramatically, that ambiguity is key. And that's the beauty of Doubt.