On Broadway, Doubt weighs certainty and fear

Published September 1, 2005

New York

Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award, and selling out nightly on Broadway, Doubt presents four unforgettable characters caught in an intriguing detective story, a collision with faith and morals and a journey to the uneasy spaces between certainty and fear.

When we first encounter her, Sister Aloysius, principal of St. Nicholas School in the Bronx is attempting to put some starch into Sister James, a young teacher who naively thinks a boy wouldn’t intentionally give himself a bloody nose to get out of class. Both are members of the order of Elizabeth Seton and wear the full black habit and bonnet. As magnificently played by Cherry Jones, Sister Aloysius regards humanity with a somewhat jaundiced attitude, but her stern manner leaves no doubt that her first concern is the students.

In Heather Goldenhersh’s portrayal, Sister James stands in quivering awe of Sister Aloysius, but also has enough backbone to defend her friendlier approach to education. She also trusts and respects Sister Aloysius enough to tell her that she thinks a new, charismatic priest at the school, Father Flynn, may have made advances to a boy in her class, Donald Muller, who is the first black child to attend St. Nicholas. Sister Aloysius has also suspected Father Flynn, played with aggressive bonhomie by Br-an F. O’Byrne, and she begins to set a trap for him.

Complicating the situation is the fact that “men run everything,” that the monsignor is a guileless man who will believe whatever Father Flynn chooses to tell him and that Father Flynn denies anything harmful took place. And, in a riveting scene, the nun’s suspicions are turned aside by the boy’s mother, played with laser-sharp clarity by Adriane Lenox. Mrs. Muller certainly doesn’t like the scenario presented by Sister Aloysius, but she believes that “this educated man with some kindness in him”can help her son in ways his cold, violent father won’t.

In this brilliant, tight, 90-minute play, there are no certainties. Is Father Flynn guilty? Is Sister Aloysius a righteous protector of children or is she a warped persecutor? She passionately cares about the students’ well-being, but doesn’t believe in being pals with the kids. But the younger woman and the priest embody a new, fresh approach to education. Which is better?

Though set in 1964, the play’s central situation is particularly timely. The Catholic Church in the United States is facing serious abuse scandals. In Canada, the Anglican church and other churches are still facing the fallout from allegations of abuse at the now-defunct residential school system for Indian children. But Mr. Shanley’s purpose is not to analyze pedophile priests, although it is clear that even the suspicion of abuse leaves all four characters deeply changed.

The playwright is also not attacking religion or faith in God, but seeking to explore whether it is certainty or doubt that is intellectually healthy, again, a timely question as religious liberals and fundamentalists debate issues concerning biblical interpretation, family life and war. For Mr. Shanley, it is the willingness to embrace doubt that leads one down the path to wisdom. “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God but in his service,” says Sister Aloysius, who proceeds to illustrate her words.

Director Doug Hughes keeps the action taut on a simple set that consists of three brick walls with arches, framing the stage, on which the principal’s office set and a gym locker room slide on and off. Some directorial flourishes, such as a frozen-moment photo flash at the end of several scenes and an ominous musical tone at scene changes, aren’t necessary.

Excellent as the actors are, their Bronx accents occasionally result in swallowed words, especially at the end of sentences, which is a shame since there isn’t an extraneous word in this entire play.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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