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: Eileen Atkins, Ron Eldard, with Jenna Malone, Adriane Lenox.
The poles may have shifted, but the magnetism hasn't. Taking on the most daunting challenge of recent Broadway seasons, Ron Eldard and Eileen Atkins have stepped into the lead roles in Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's thrilling (and now Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning) play at the Walter Kerr, and achieved the coup most of us didn't dare hope for.
As Father Flynn, a priest at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, and Sister Aloysius, the school principal who believes (but can't prove) he's molested the school's lone black student, Eldard and Dame Eileen have successfully donned the most imposing vestments this side of the Vatican. The roles' originators, Brían F. O'Byrne and Cherry Jones, each gave the kind of once-in-a-lifetime performance that diligent theatregoers count themselves fortunate to see at all, but which seldom occur in the same show.
If you saw them, Eldard and Dame Eileen won't erase your memories of them. But they wisely don't try to. Instead, they approach the two diametrically opposed forces as entirely fresh creations, bound only by Shanley's infinitely layered script and Doug Hughes's superlative direction. The impact of the two roles on each other and on us has diminished little, if at all, yet the show is now entirely different.
Dame Eileen is over 20 years older than Jones and uses each of those extra years to further inform Sister Aloysius. She's now even more grounded, responding to each minor victory and setback in her quest to protect her students and her sisters with the devil-may-care certainty of one who's seen and stared down it all. Where Jones was stonily resolute and unyielding in posture and voice, Dame Eileen is a hawk: With pursed, beaklike lips and gently narrowed eyes, she surveys and instantly analyzes everything around her, responding with such habitual efficiency that when her countenance cracks it's a startling event.
This palpably heightens her contrast with Eldard, who reads younger and more personable than O'Byrne, and is thus a more formidable adversary. While O'Byrne brought to Father Flynn a mature seasoning, Eldard makes his youth and attractiveness - from his red-blond hair on down - integral to his portrayal. When he's conversing with his young male students about basketball, he relates to them on so knowing and intimate a level, there are times he truly seems one of them; you instantly understand, as you didn't with O'Byrne, the tools Father Flynn might use to draw boys into his clutches. (Assuming, of course, that's what happens.)
If Dame Eileen and Eldard occupy slightly different positions from their predecessors, the confrontations between their characters have lost none of their persuasiveness. This set-in-her-ways Sister Aloysius reacts with a horror at the length of Father Flynn's fingernails that would have been unthinkable when Jones played her. When he must stand up to her or sacrifice his career, he undergoes a number of split-second transformations from boy to man and back that underscore Father Flynn's uncertain adulthood (and uncertain guilt) in ways the more aggressive O'Byrne didn't consider.
It's this attention to detail that continues to make Doubt such a gripping must-see. This meticulous rethinking of the characters from the roots upward, however, hasn't occurred with the action's crucial third participant, the torn-apart onlooker Sister James.
She's now played by Jena Malone, in a virtual carbon copy of originator Heather Goldenhersh's performance. But where Goldenhersh lived, anguished, in the crippling battlefield between Sister Aloysius's oppressive persecution and disgusting thoughts of Father Flynn's perpetrations, Malone views and comments on them as if standing behind a wall of soundproof glass. The depth of confliction, the implacable innocence of wanting to believe the best in everyone in a world in which evil people truly do exist, is conspicuously absent.
This gutting of the character guts the play: Sister James is a vital lynchpin for the story, our surrogate, who must choose - and live with the choice - we're able to safely observe from the audience. As Eldard and Dame Eileen demonstrate the value of new approaches, so does Malone detail the dangers of replicating, to a gesture, another actor's work. Everything that doesn't derive organically is false, and Malone's performance is thoroughly false.
To that end, I must applaud Caroline Stefanie Clay, who stepped in for an ill Adriane Lenox as the black student's mother at the performance I attended. Zaftig where Lenox is svelte, and broadening (though not too far) her capitulatory attitude toward her son's predicament into a brutalized but hopeful wife trying to make a better life for her son, she's a more-than-serviceable replacement. You don't get with Clay the full range of desperate colors you do with Lenox, and the mother's single scene becomes merely a stepping stone to the play's conclusion instead of the evening's devastating emotional climax.
But that doesn't prevent Doubt from playing superbly; it merely allows it to play differently. How refreshing that a show may morph and grow with its replacements, breathing and living anew with each successive iteration without a changing of the lines. That, as much as the text itself, brands the play as a redoubtable achievement of the contemporary American theatre, a play about the quest for truth that will always succeed when played truthfully.
Each new cast and generation of audiences will struggle to find their own
answers to the show's mysteries, while pondering Shanley's timeless
questions about right and wrong. The truth about Father Flynn we will
likely never know. But the value of the search - and of Doubt - will only
continue to grow.