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A CurtainUp Review
Besides being Shanley's third play to open within a fortnight, Doubt is also the season's third play about the child abuse issue that has rocked the Catholic Church. Ronan Noone's Lepers of Baile Baste, ran briefly in a very small theater so that it came and went without making a ripple. It focused on a group of young men in a small Irish town who still bore the scars inflicted on them as schoolboys by an abusive priest. The Irish setting pointed to the fact that this problem is not unique to this country. Though Noone was raised in Ireland, he was already a Boston resident when the scandals in Cardinal Law's diocese erupted. It was that scandal that inspired Michael Murphy's Sin (a Cardinal Deposed), a trenchant documentary forged from the transcripts of the deposition of the Cardinal's testimony about the administrative practices that allowed abusive priests to go unpunished.
In Doubt we never see the victim. There is only one suspect priest and though he probably is guilty, it's not an open and shut, beyond a doubt case. In fact, Father Flynn (Brian O'Byrne), is a more sympathetic character than Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), the righteous nun who is certain that he represents a danger to the boys at the junior high school she rules with an iron fist. Unlike Cardinal Law, Sister Aloysius is a hands-on administrator who keeps a sharp eye on her teachers and students.
Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are strong personalities and their battle makes this a story with philosophical implications beyond the issue play genre. This nun and priest are at loggerheads even without the pedophile situation to ignite their differences into a confrontation that affects the whole community. Shanley wittily illustrates this when the Sister purses her lips disapprovingly at Father Flynn's suggestion to introduce some fun tunes like "It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas" into the Christmas pageant. The community is kept within the confines of the school which is in the working class Bronx neighborhood that has been the creative wellspring for so many Shanley plays.
The doubt versus certainty theme's broader significance is underscored by having the story unfold through the prism of the 1960s -- a period marked by the Kennedy assassination trauma and the doubts it seeded about who killed the president and why; a period that also brought social change throughout the land and within the Catholic Church.
Above all, Doubt, is an engrossing drama. Mr. Shanley is blessed to have Cherry Jones and Brian O'Byrne as his two chief protagonists, as well as the always appealing Heather Goldenhersh as Sister James a novice teaching nun. Sister James' youthful fervor is one of this ugly situation's casualties, yet the way she deals with her loss of innocence adds to the play's power. While it essentially revolves around these three people, the fourth character, the mother (Adriane Lenox) of the boy probably being mentored more intimately than he should be, adds to the play's scope.
As the play wastes no time in establishing the characters' personalities, director Doug Hughes's fluid direction goes right past the potential pause between the script's two acts. Father Flynn's opening appearance has him looking regal in his green priest's robes, but he delivers the opening monologue (quoted at the top of this reviews) in the pure Bronx-speak of a man who can relate to the people in his parish. Thus it will come as no surprise to see him in sweat pants in his role as the school's athletic coach. When the priest steps down from his pulpit and the scene shifts to Sister Alyosius' office, it doesn't take more than a minute to see that we are in the presence of a formidable woman who brooks no nonsense from anyone. She's that stern termagant who plays a role in many a Catholic school graduate's memory book -- as Sister James is the teacher they adored.
A visit to Sister Alyosius' office is clearly never casual or fun -- not for Sister James, not for Father Flynn, and not for Mrs. Muller, the mother of the student whose relationship with Father Flynn makes Sister Alyosius certain that she must bring the priest down. If Mrs. Muller's one scene reveals almost too much baggage to attach to that unseen boy, it nevertheless adds yet another layer of meaning and complexity,
Though Adriane Lenox brings great dignity to Mrs. Muller's painful viewpoint, and Heather Goldenhersh is easily the play's most likeable character, it's Jones and O'Byrne who electrify the stage. Jones is tall, but as the forbidding Sister Alyosius she seems a giantess -- albeit a very human giantess. As he did in last season's Frozen, O'Byrne again displays his gift for conveying a complex psyche. His Father Flynn is a convincingly bright and caring priest; yet one can believe that he may be a monster.
The play could probably work with a fairly bare bones set. Indeed, when you first take your seat, the stage looks black and empty. But with John Lee Beatty credited as set designer you'll be right to expect some elegant scenic effects. As O'Byrne's begins his opening sermon, Pat Collins' lighting subtly bring brick walls with a stained glass window into focus. This becomes a permanent backdrop. The principal's office, a church garden between the nuns' and priests' quarters, and a gym locker room are rolled on and off stage without the slightest awkardness or artificiality.
Doubt has all the ingredients to warrant a transfer to a theater where it can enjoy an open-ended run. It is not so much a play about a hot button current events issue than simply ninety minutes of good theater, with enough Shanleyian humor to entertain and plenty of food for post-theater discussions. Like Proof, another Manhattan Theatre Club drama that took the leap to Broadway (not to mention a Pulitzer Prize), Doubt features a commercially viable small but magnificent cast. Unlike Sister Aloysius, I have little doubt that if that cast as well as the current design team were part of such a move, audiences would welcome this as an all too rare opportunity to see a new, well crafted American-made drama.
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Lepers of Baile Baste
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