Walking Among My Yesterdays – "Doubt" (1/8/06)

I’ve decided that I’m going to start a new series discussing the shows and musicals I’ve seen and/or worked on prior to starting the blog in late 2007. Some of the writing will be reprinted from essays, defunct blogs, etc. The rest I will be writing about for the first time in any forum. Some is critical, some is academic. The new series I am going to call “Walking Among My Yesterdays,” in line with my favorite song from The Happy Time and my show call at the right side of the page. First up, I offer my thoughts on Doubt, originally written on January 9, 2006 (after seeing the last performance of the entire original cast of the play):

Doubt, a Parable. What can I say? The play is brilliant. John Patrick Shanley delivers a credible, thought-provoking and intriguing story, and although it takes place in 1964, it (sadly) has relevance today. Cherry Jones’ performance as Sister Aloysius is a remarkable tour-de-force. It was hard to recognize her, she was so easily consumed in the habit and the demeanor of a strict pre-Vatican 2 nun. Her stiff physicality and sharp vocal inflection only added to her characterization.

For a show running 90 minutes, not a moment is lost: every word counts and it’s taut and gripping. With the traditional ways of the mother superior clashing with the liberal tendencies of the younger priest, it’s really hard to delineate the truth on the whole matter. Basically, with nothing more than a suspicion, Sister Aloysius suspects that Father O’Flynn, who is also the phys ed. and religion teacher, is making inappropriate advances on the school’s (first and) only black child. The battle of wills is fierce, as both are strong characters with a great deal of resolve. The priest is at an advantage, as Roman Catholic priests have patriarchal authority in the church, which he subtly uses as a fear tactic against Sister Aloysius, but she is firm in her handling of the situation. The problem on her part is that there is no tangible evidence to prove her suspicions correct and refuses to accept what he says. Their confrontation scene towards the end of the play is the stuff rave reviews were made for. It got to the point where they were yelling in each other’s faces, neither choosing to stand down – and the audience ate it up. Several keys lines people tried to start applause, but the heat of the moment onstage didn’t allow for any breaks and the actors continued pressing forward with such conviction. Finally when the scene did end, it stopped the show. Lengthy explosion of applause from the house.

Jones’ Aloysius is a tough nut, but even though dead set in her ways and occasionally off the mark, she is fascinating, intriguing and sometimes funny. Her accomplice, so to speak, is a weak-willed, naive nun named Sister James, whom Aloysius is trying to get to be like her, even though the young girl is more progressively minded. James has a monologue during which she lashes back at the mother superior in a brilliant explosion of pent up emotion. Cherry stopped the show cold with her sharp, cool and authoritative reply of “Sit down.” Stunning work on finding some levity in the piece, considering the starched quality of her character. A stunning moment came when Aloysius is tending to plants in the courtyard while conversing with Sister James. James mentions that she thinks the priest has done what Aloysius expects. Cherry is kneeling, facing upstage right. You can’t see her face, but you see the comment hit her like a ton of bricks. Her response was a stunned “What…?”. What a moment, especially with her back to the audience. The characterization is remarkable, playing off her strengths as equally as her flaws. Her stolid quality was notable in her body language, how she carried herself, walked, every detail she was living the part. I noted the minor point that she was standing up to the second class citizenry nuns found themselves in the Church years ago, as she is not allowed to be in a room alone with him – a rule he breaks during their final battle, as well as not being able to enter the rectory or walk up to a priest, etc. I was intrigued by that, and by the fact that regardless, she had no power outside her principal’s office in the parish.

Adriane Lenox plays the mother of the young boy in question and in another brilliant (and brief) scene, interacts with Cherry over the interests of her son. The role is stunning, because in all her 7 or 8 minutes onstage, you know everything about this character and Lenox makes daring choices (the character’s reaction is rather shocking to the audience, and out of left field, especially in such a matter).

I cannot praise Shanley enough for writing this play. It deserved all of its awards last spring. The “parable”, as the play is referred to, offers no concrete evidence for either side of the argument. The ambiguous ending is perfection – he’s crafted it so that the evidence presented puts doubt into the audience as well as the characters onstage. There is no clear-cut truth to the matter and end is startling and effective in its polarizing of the audience. I’m still not sure who to believe, I leaned towards Aloysius at first, but then bounced back when the priest presented his case, but at the end I was completely uncertain. Talk about a success on the part of the author’s intent.

The only flaw, I thought, was Heather Goldenhersh, as the younger nun Sister James. I felt that she wasn’t even acting (not in the amazing Cherry Jones way, but in the someone handed an unprofessional a script and told her to act-deer in headlights way). Her character was mannered, the acting wasn’t sophomoric, it wasn’t realistic and had no energy. However, I was impressed with Cherry as a scene partner. She worked magically off of all the actors and even had a good stage rapport with the younger actress (even if I thought she was lacking, the Tony people didn’t. Oh well, it’s just my opinion).

Between this and The Pillowman, it’s been a good year for drama. Doubt, especially, with its purposeful lack of a clear-cut ending, is leaving audience members thinking, talking and debating as they leave the Walter Kerr Theatre. I also think this play would expand well onscreen too. (There is sadly, such relevance in the fears of priests molesting children and in that regard, I sympathized with Aloysius’ fear for the safety of her students, even if her character lacked grace in handling the situation. It was also fascinating as a product of parochial elementary education to see it presented on Broadway).

I feel privileged and honored to have seen Cherry Jones act live onstage. I am in a state of awe after having witnessed such genius in the acting and in the writing (and in directing, Doug Hughes, unsung in my comments, has done stellar staging of the text, keeping the pacing tight and always intriguing).

After thinking about it, I think I tended more toward Aloysius’ suspicion. I don’t necessarily think she did the right thing. But I was fearful for the student’s well-being and in this day and age, its a zero-tolerance policy. But evidence is key, we can’t just go on gut impulses all the time, even if it feels 100% certain to be the right path.

In retrospect 2004-05 proved to be a stellar theatre season for me: The Light in the Piazza (7 times), Doubt, The Pillowman, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (twice), Purlie & The Apple Tree at Encores!, South Pacific at Carnegie Hall, La Cage Aux Folles (twice) and Spamalot.

And before I stop, I just wanted to include John Patrick Shanley’s Playbill bio:

John Patrick Shanley (Playwright) is from the Bronx. He was thrown out of St. Helena’s kindergarten. He was banned from St. Anthony’s hot lunch program for life. He was expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School. He was placed on academic probation by New York University and instructed to appear before a tribunal if he wished to return. When asked why he had been treated in this way by all these institutions, he burst into tears and said he had no idea. Then he went in the United States Marine Corps. He did fine. He’s still doing okay. Mr. Shanley is interested in your reactions. He can be contacted at shanleysmoney@aol.com.