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Broadway Reviews

Doubt: A Parable

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 7, 2024

Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Vocal coach Kate Wilson.
Cast: Amy Ryan, Liev Schreiber, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and Zoe Kazan.
Theater: Todd Haimes Theatre, 227 W 42nd St.
Tickets: RoundaboutTheatre.og

Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, and Liev Schreiber
Photo by Joan Marcus
Never underestimate Sister Aloysius Beauvier, principal of St. Nicholas Elementary School. It's easy enough to peg her as a stereotype, a tough-minded old-fashioned conservative nun who, when told her students are "uniformly terrified" of her, unironically replies, "yes, that's how it works." But, as portrayed by a pitch-perfect Amy Ryan in what is the first Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley's 20-year-old Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt: A Parable, opening tonight at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Todd Haimes Theatre, Sister Aloysius is an all-too-human force of nature who engages in a take-no-prisoners battle when she smells a rat lurking about the premises.

Whether the "rat" she has identified, a parish priest named Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber, a consummate foil to Ryan's tenacious nun), actually is one will remain forever unresolved in the explosive "j'accuse" that, per the play's title, is subject to conjecture throughout. Doubt remains, two decades later, a brilliantly constructed drama that challenges the audience to take sides. All evidence is circumstantial, and anything that might amount to conclusive proof lies in the eye of the beholder.

When that beholder is Sister Aloysius, it is not doubt but certitude that sets her on the path toward exposing and bringing to justice (canonical if not statutory) Father Flynn, whom she suspects of initiating a predatory sexual relationship with one of the eighth grade male students at the coeducational school.

The strictly-by-the-rules principal is not a huge fan of the popular and personable Father Flynn to begin with. The play takes place in 1964 when, under the auspices of the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church was undertaking a progressive reform movement that challenged the views of traditionalists like Sister Aloysius. Not so for Father Flynn, who embraces a kinder, gentler approach to the religious life. He takes a personal interest in the struggles of the parishioners and the students, and preaches not of the importance of obedience and unflinching faith, but to the very real human condition of incertitude. What, Sister Aloysius wonders, is he struggling with that reflects his own inner discord?

Amy Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine
Photo by Joan Marcus
To get at the underlying cause of Father Flynn's seeming personal doubts, she has appointed herself as chief investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in a situation in which her instincts are really all she has to go on. To assist her in the gathering of evidence, she enlists the aid of one of the seemingly more malleable junior teachers, Sister James (Zoe Kazan, the epitome of guilelessness), and essentially turns her into a spy in the search for crumbs of potential evidence or speculation she can use to build her case.

At one point, she also brings in the mother of the boy she believes is being exploited, a young man who is the only Black student at the school. But the mother (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, engrossing in a singularly significant scene) balks at providing the support Sister Aloysius is looking for. And so the lone nun stands by herself as she faces Father Flynn, a priest in the days long before public awareness of covered-up sexual abuse cases within the Church became widely known.

The 90-minute path from start to end is pretty straightforward, not unlike the parable the playwright promises to present. But every word, every verbal inflection and tone of voice, and even Amy Ryan's working class yet never exaggerated New York accent (the play takes place in the Bronx) adds to the richness of the performances, beautifully directed by Scott Ellis to keep everything anchored in verisimilitude and away from the potential pitfall of melodrama. As for the word "doubt" itself, you could write an entire sermon wrapped around all of its connotations, not the least of which occurs at the very end of the play.

The production is aided in no small part by Linda Cho's costumes and David Rockwell's authentic-seeming, solid-looking set design. The cast of four is altogether excellent, but one last shout-out needs to go to the twice Tony-nominated Amy Ryan, whose welcome return to Broadway comes just weeks after she was named to replace Tyne Daly in the role of the complex and complicated Sister Aloysius after an illness forced Daly to withdraw. No doubt, Daly would have made the role her own, but Ryan is giving a wonderfully layered performance that drives the heart of this equally layered play.