A powerful, compact, thought-provoking piece of theater: at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, academic principal Sister Aloysius (the heralded Cherry Jones) becomes convinced that the parish priest Father Flynn (genial, robust Chris McGarry) has made inappropriate contact with one of her students. The time is the early 1960s, when the Catholic Church was undergoing the reforms accompanying the Second Vatican Council, taking steps towards accessibility, tolerance, and openness.
Yet flinty Sr. Aloysius, for whom even “satisfaction is a vice,” remains committed to the severities and regimen of the past. She gave up sugar for Lent one year, and when the season was over, forgot to resume the indulgence. She is convinced of Fr. Flynn’s misconduct on the merest shreds of evidence—and yet, she would ask, how much proof is needed when the exploitation of a twelve-year-old boy is at stake?
Fr. Flynn, for his part, answers her from the pulpit with a homily about accusations: as impossible as it is to catch the feathers of a torn pillow scattered to the wind, just so is it impossible to unsay a word of unsupported suspicion. As solid as Aloysius is in her certainly, Flynn finds comfort and a reminder of his own humanity in doubt. Of himself and his blamelessness? Perhaps.
Between the two stands Sister James, a young teacher at the school, played particularly effectively by Lisa Joyce. This is a role that in lesser hands would reveal its structural nature of providing exposition and comic relief, but Joyce gives the role reality. Despite her stated convictions, first on one side and then the other, it’s clear that she remans troubled with her own doubts.
As directed by Doug Hughes, there is a certain judiciousness in the early scenes, which play out for the most part in Aloysius’s cinderblock office and in the plain flower garden that separates the school from the priest’s quarters. Blocking is minimal. Jones keeps her hands bundled inside her habit, so that when she reveals them to ask for support or to make a point, the simple gesture has a lot of punch.
So it feels a little too much when emotions get the better of Flynn and Aloysius and the proceedings culminate in a shouting match between the two.
All around, dialects were sometimes difficult to place, sounding more Boston than Bronx.
But the closing moments of the play are perfectly modulated and genuine.
John Patrick Shanley’s notes to the play include an epigraph from Ecclesiastes 1:18: “…in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”
- Doubt: A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Doug Hughes, The National Theatre, Washington