Nail-biting, my lapsed-Catholic friends tell me, is prohibited and strictly punished in Catholic schools. This will make a problem for parochial-school alumni who attend John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, in which some of the big moral and ethical issues that surround the scandal currently confronting the Catholic Church are raised through a story of nail-biting tension. Shanley has written with extreme scruple; he neither gimmicks up his story nor tilts its balance in favor of one or the other of his opposed characters, a nun and a priest. The suspense comes precisely from his scrupulousness, wrapped in all the moral qualms that fair-mindedness automatically provides: Doubt is not only Shanley’s title but his subject.
The parochial-school setting and the tormenting issue of false accusation at the core of the play evoke Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, but Shanley’s variant leaves the kids out of it, to be what they are. Here it’s the school’s administrator, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), who makes the accusation; the one at whom she points the finger is the popular, charismatic young priest, Father Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne), who coaches the schoolboys at basketball and counsels them, at the parish house, over cookies and Kool-Aid. It’s the era of JFK and John XXIII, that brief time of hope for renewal in American Catholicism. Hearts are high and progressivism is in. The Bronx school is moving ahead, cautiously, with its first black student, young Donald Muller, who’s even been made an altar boy. But has Donald been sneaking slugs of altar wine on the sly—or did Father Flynn give it to him? And has he been taking Donald to the parish house for counseling, or is something else going on, which poor Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh), who adores Father Flynn but reports the wine on Donald’s breath to Sister Aloysius, can’t even begin to imagine?
Matters get even more complex when Sister Aloysius summons Donald’s mother (Adriane Lenox) into the picture. Donald’s home life, and his mother’s view of what may be going on with Father Flynn, are complex to say the least. Questions of true and false, of what one may and may not do to right wrongs, suddenly get weighed down by other questions, involving priority and moral relativism. Keeping the action tautly focused but letting the characters speak their minds, Shanley repeatedly twists the event to raise the drama another notch. What starts in one room echoes through ever wider corridors, going up in the hierarchy as it expands its ethical scope. What happens at the end leaves nothing in doubt—and leaves you doubting everything. Somebody’s guilt has been proven, but the proving may have done more harm than good. Doubt is a very good play to see if you enjoy lying awake at night, pondering the actions people take and the consequences they bring about.
Doubt is an unusual play for Shanley, whose situations tend to be more loose-jointed, and his characters more digressive. Few of his scripts are conventionally plotted in this quid-pro-quo format, and many of them have the spontaneous quality of bull sessions or conversations overheard in the neighborhood bar. What’s most heartening here is that he’s found his way to the suspense-thriller qualities of Doubt without losing that sense of spontaneity; everything here seems to happen as naturally as in the looser plays, but it also, simultaneously, tightens the trap and puts another facet on the questions at issue. Once or twice, especially in the standoff between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller, Shanley slips for an instant and lets the talk fall in line with his agenda too readily, but these are momentary specks of dust on a picture that otherwise manages to be, remarkably, as truthful as it is glossy.
A lot of the gloss, expectably, comes from Doug Hughes’s production, about which my only doubts concern John Lee Beatty’s set, which I wish were built on some central image that summed up the play. On the other hand, its series of disconnected pieces that slide on and off are, in their way, an image for the slippery relativity of the story’s truths, and Beatty’s conception of the school office where most of the action takes place is, like all Beatty interiors, perfectly conceived—though it’s unlike most Beatty interiors in that no audience member would willingly work there; the recognition of its accuracy comes with a shudder.
You might say the same about Cherry Jones’s Sister Aloysius. Firm as a redwood in her suspicions and fast as a bullet train in her determination to prove them true, Sister Aloysius is indeed a phenomenon to shudder over. That Jones, famous for showing her vulnerability and desperation in plays like The Heiress and the about-to-be-revived Baltimore Waltz, can turn herself into this implacable figure with the hard mouth and the steely stare is a strict lesson in the magic of acting, of a kind that can’t happen anywhere except on a stage. You watch her and hear her; she is right there; and as you watch, Sister Aloysius’s entire life becomes present to you. (You feel that you know what she was like before she entered the convent, and how she became what she is.) O’Byrne’s Father Flynn, smiling, handsome, and just a touch synthetic in his playing—appropriately, since we should never feel we know the truth about him—makes a gracious foil for her ferocity. Goldenhersh and Lenox weigh in effectively in the secondary roles. But remembering to praise them, in the wake of Jones’s achievement, takes extra effort: She is the one thing in the evening about which there can be, as W.S. Gilbert once remarked, “no manner of doubt, no probable, possible shadow of doubt, no possible doubt whatever.”