Doubt is a spellbinding and expertly written new play from John Patrick Shanley. In a season awash with tepid revivals, over-amplified musicals, and Hollywood stars doing their “legit” gigs, Doubt renews your faith in the theater with an excellent story that keeps you guessing to the end, terrific writing and great acting from two of the theater’s best.
Who needs Hollywood stars when the likes of Cherry Jones and Brian F. O’Byrne are available? It is their expertly crafted performances which make Doubt a truly unforgettable experience. The two clash, provoke and attack each other with a ferocity not seen on a New York stage since Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen in Dance of Death.
The plot involves a Catholic grammar school and the possible misbehavior of Father Flynn (O’Byrne), a popular priest in the parish who coaches boy’s basketball and befriends its troubled students. Despite its ripped-from-the-headlines scenario, the play actually takes place in 1964, right around the time of the Vatican II reforms.Flynn’s demeanor seems at first perfectly innocent, showing him to be a more contemporary spiritual leader in stark contrast to Jones’ indefatigable school principal, Sister Aloysius.She, having her doubts about the moral character of the priest, recruits the young, na�ve Sister James to (an appropriately jittery Heather Goldenhersch) to keep her ear close to the ground.When Sister James comes to her over a strange occurrence involving Father Flynn and a student with alcohol on his breath, the school principal has all the confirmation she needs for her suspicions.
What follows is an explosive cat-and-mouse game between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Although Flynn provides her with more information about the incident, the relentless nun refuses to accept what seems to be a reasonable explanation.At first, it seems she is on a witch-hunt of sorts. But her continued probing into Flynn’s background provides further details to fuel her beliefs.Jones is at the top of her form portraying the unforgiving nun who runs her school like a totalitarian state.Told that the students fear her, she is pleased.With facial features set into a steely mask and posture so straight that she might very well be wearing a back brace, Jones’ Aloysius shows no pity for the likeable Flynn as she sets out to destroy him for the sin she believes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he has committed. Unflinching and with an almost chilling conviction, she delivers the performance of a lifetime.
And O’Byrne is every bit her equal.Banishing his Irish brogue in favor of an outer-borough accent, he is perfectly cast as the affable priest struggling to save his reputation.His nuanced performance shows him as a priest determined to be not just a spiritual leader and preacher, but also friend and confidante.He shows just enough assurance in his spot in the church’s pecking order (nuns, after all, can’t accuse priests in such a hierarchy) and in his ability to befriend a congregation that fears his rival, that one can guess one of the reasons Sister Aloysius is hell-bent on his destruction.
Their confrontations, especially one fireworks-laden scene late in the play, keep the audience on the edge of its seat. But don’t expect a clear resolution to the play; Shanley has slyly and deliberately crafted it to be ambiguous.Father Flynn may or may not be a pedophile.Sister Aloysius seems to be a zealot; she may also well be justified in her crusade.Doubt does indeed prevail at the end but the result is a provocative, thoroughly engaging piece of theatre.