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.

Doubt: A Film

[I don’t intend on spoiling anything, but I do discuss certain aspects of the plot that may be considered spoilers, hard as it be to avoid them whenever you discuss this piece. So if you’re on the spoiler police squad that usually cries foul at those who do, go see the film first just to be on the safe side :)]

I rank seeing the original Broadway cast of Doubt high on my all-time list of theatre going experiences. Part of the appreciation stemmed from my Catholic upbringing and nine years spent in a parochial school, but mostly I was impressed with Shanley’s text. The principal of a 1964 Bronx Catholic school suspects one of the priests of having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black student. And go… the play in its taut ninety minutes isn’t about the validity of whether or not the priest has done it, but about the greater ramifications of our certainty and judgments. You have nun vs. priest, encompassing a greater conflict of conservative vs. progressive, Vatican I vs. Vatican II, man vs. woman (especially in the patriarchal hierarchies of the Roman Catholic Church).

As I watched the terrific play unfold onstage, I couldn’t help but think that it would open well for film and to my delight it has. There are aspects that will remain for my theatrical experience, the play’s dialogue is so expertly written (crafted? manipulated? you decide) to give the audience only circumstantial evidence for either argument. However, one must base their decision on the facts and not what is circumstantial which has led many theatre patrons to have fantastic discussions following three tier: they supported the nun, they supported the priest or they hadn’t a clue. The playwright’s intention was the latter, but far be it from anyone to convince anyone otherwise.

Shanley’s screenplay and direction have taken the play out of the church and principal’s office, giving us scenes in the courtyard, classrooms, convent, rectory and street, opening it up without tampering too much with what was presented onstage. Meryl Streep gives a stern, magnificently restrained performance as Sr. Aloysius, the principal who either has it in for this priest, or has the interests of her students in mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman is credible as Fr. Flynn, the charismatic priest who has…well, what has he done? I’m afraid I don’t know, nor do I think I ever will know. Amy Adams is spectacular as Sister James, the 8th grade teacher who finds herself caught in the middle of the battle. Viola Davis, on screen for 11 minutes as Donald Miller’s (why the change from Muller to Miller… anyone?) mother, is magnificent. Her scene is both devastating and unsettling, particularly in the unexpected turn their conversation takes. I can vividly recall the look on Cherry Jones’ face at the Walter Kerr, which was not unlike that on Meryl’s face.

The love of the play didn’t hinder me seeing this film, in spite of my underwhelming reaction to the casting of the two lead roles. In an ideal world, all our original casts would get to put their roles on screen. Cherry Jones was no exception for me. I had heard talk of her for years, but hadn’t really seen much of her work save for Cradle Will Rock and a memorable cameo in Ocean’s Twelve (the only thing I can recall from that otherwise DOA sequel). However, I was taking in her Tony winning role, especially beating the voracious Martha of Kathleen Turner. Well, to put it simply, I will drop anything and everything to see her onstage (only we’ve lost her to the current season of 24 where she plays the latest US president caught up in the world of Jack Bauer). Her performance as Aloysius ranks near the top of the list of live theatre experiences I’ve had, ably matched by the youthfully virile Brian F. O’Byrne sporting a Bronx accent and nary a trace of his Irish in a verbal volley for the ages, putting me at the edge of my seat. Her command of the stage and the audience was just thrilling, with her exceeding the hype surrounding her, with a performance reminiscent of the more stern nuns I’ve known and adored.

Anyway, the film is for the most part, quite excellent. Of all things I’m kind of nonplussed at the establishing shots of the film that really weren’t necessary. A nice touch too with Shanley giving Streep an entrance, with a great reveal after scolding several students for misbehavior at Mass. She gives one of the best turns I’ve ever seen her give (this from someone who finds her highly overrated, no offense meant) and certainly worthy of the accolades that have come her way. She finds her way through the script without being a total harridan which is important, especially in the final confrontation sequence. Hoffman, regardless of how the award guilds look at it, is giving a lead performance and is outstanding.

The final confrontation scene was electric onstage and I miss the higher stakes seen onstage, though that is a personal quibble and those of you seeing the film without having seen the show staged, this will mean nothing to you. Go, enjoy the film and discuss, it’s strength is in the text and in the performances (it’s fun too if you’ve seen the play to see where Shanley has cut and added scenes and dialogue). The writer and actors often discussed how the the play itself was the first act and the second act was the audience leaving the theatre arguing and debating over what they had seen. I would love to know what you thought about it as well.

It should be interesting to see how the film fares on Oscar night. While it was denied a Best Picture nod, the four main actors are in contention. The Best Supporting Actress category minus favorite Kate Winslet has suddenly become the one category that is completely up in the air and bears watching. Hoffman doesn’t stand much of a chance against the juggernaut of the late Heath Ledger and his iconic performance in The Dark Knight. And it appears that Best Actress is between Meryl and Kate. I’ll be en route to or in the airport at that point… so lord knows if I’ll see any of it.

Oh, and before I forget. One touch I loved? The casting of Helen Stenborg as Sister Teresa. Stenborg, the widow of the late Barnard Hughes, is the mother of Doug Hughes, the Tony-winning director of the original production.

Doubt: A Trailer

Meryl Streep…
Philip Seymour Hoffman…
Amy Adams…

and of course the great Viola Davis.


Judging strictly by the theatrical trailer, it looks like the film adaptation of Doubt is going to be quite good. As a matter of fact, it looks like it might be excellent and a major awards contender this Oscar season. The play, which won the Pulitzer and Tony back in 2005, has a taut, masterful structure and one that I felt would open up well on screen. I have to admit that I was biased in favor of the original cast and rather disappointed when Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman got the leads. (Comparisons are unfair, yet inevitable. If you go to the message boards, there is no shortage of opinion and the insults hurled at said opinions are ringing out like freedom). I have to say for as strong as the film appears to be, I feel that the two leads lack the distinctive characterizations that made the set match between Cherry Jones and Brian F. O’Byrne so fascinating. Especially with Sister Aloysius, a formidable Catholic school principal with considerable authority, but who is essentially powerless in the greater patriarchal hierarchies of the Catholic church.

I’m curious to see if Streep and Hoffman can give the characters the distinctive objectivity that made the stage production fascinating to watch. Aloysius was tough but never a sinister harridan in spite of her convictions. (Those calmer revealing moments about her character spoke volumes to an inestimable warmth hidden under the stern veneer and stiff habit). My one qualm is that the trailer shows the nun in a more damning light, with Streep seeming a bit too Regina Giddens for the character. (Perhaps Streep should consider a revival of The Little Foxes in NY?) Flynn was the ideal younger priest – progressive, charismatic and incredibly impassioned. The way the play has been written, it isn’t easy to side with either one. I am most curious to see what happens when these characters are placed on screen.

Amy Adams looks like she is a stellar choice for the role of Sister James, the anemic, young nun who finds herself getting caught up in the battle between Aloysius and Flynn. Knowing what I do of the character and just from seeing her in this trailer, I get the distinct feeling that Viola Davis is going to walk away with the film, in tradition with original cast member Adriane Lenox who won a Featured Actress Tony for her 8 minute scene.

When I saw Doubt, my sympathies volleyed back and forth between Aloysius and Fr. Flynn throughout the ninety minute parable. Shanley offered in his playbill bio the opportunity to send him an email telling him of your thoughts and I did so. If I delved further into my thoughts here, I would spoil things for those unfamiliar with the piece. At the end of the play, I couldn’t side with either one. Both had strong arguments and emotions, but at the heart of it, there was nothing but circumstantial evidence to back it up.

Did anyone see the original production of Doubt? Any thoughts on the upcoming film?

Doubt, A Movie

With my nine years spent in Catholic elementary school, with nuns and all the fixings, I was incredibly intrigued to see this play when it first opened. I had never seen Cherry Jones before and frankly was wondering what the fuss was about. Until I saw the play. Her performances as Sr. Aloysius was one of the more spectacular I have ever seen and consider myself a big fan. Brian F. O’Byrne was her considerable equal, especially when their conflict came to a breaking point towards the end. Myself and many other theatregoers left the play quite stunned; a final revelation shocking us and leaving many of us with uncertainty as whether which one was to be believed.

Now the film. Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman pick up where these two great stage actors have left off. They are joined by Angela Bassett and Amy Adams (two rather exciting bits of casting, I must say). I’ve got to confess that while I’ll be seeing the film, I’m less than excited with at the casting of Streep and Hoffman. I hope come December they can change my mind.