Sometimes it is simply impossible to know the truth. That’s why being in the audience for a work of fiction is so great; we know what’s going on often when the characters themselves have no clue. We have become so conditioned to knowing what is going on that it is dangerous to leave the audience in the dark for fear of alienating them. To pull off this crime of omission, you better be bold and you better have something to say; fortunately, the award-winning new play “Doubt” scores on both accounts.
“Doubt” was much lauded on Broadway, winning both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for best play and scoring an acting Tony for Cherry Jones who reprised her role as Sister Aloysius to headline the traveling production of the play which made its way to the Fox Theatre last week.
Unfortunately, Jones was ill on opening night, which was disappointing; however, the show must go on and thanks to the strength of the work and an excellent understudy in Darrie Lawrence, Jones’ absence was quickly forgotten.
“Doubt” is a simple and sparse production with only four characters and is set in a Catholic School in the Bronx in the early 1960s. Sister James (Lisa Joyce) is an innocent young nun who teaches 8th grade at the school. She gets called to meet with the principal, Sister Aloysius, a stern disciplinarian who lectures Sister James about being too easy on her students and also warns her to be on the lookout for any strange behavior in any of the students, especially the boys.
When one of the boys returns distressed and with alcohol on his breath to Sister James’ class after a private meeting with the school priest, Father Flynn (Chris McGarry), Sister Aloysius immediately suspects Father Flynn of having an inappropriate physical relationship with the boy.
But Father Flynn’s denial, church politics, and a seemingly reasonable explanation leave Sister Aloysius alone with only her convictions and beliefs in her crusade to bring down Father Flynn. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the boy in question is the first black student to attend the school. Even the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Caroline Stefanie Clay), is reluctant to press the issue. Yet, Sister Aloysius will not be swayed from what she believes to be true.
There is an old short story called “The Lady or the Tiger?” in which the story culminates with a man opening a door behind which he believes there to be a beautiful woman whom he loves. However, because of extenuating circumstances, there could also be a man-eating tiger behind the door and the story ends just before he opens the door, leaving it up to the reader to determine the man’s fate. “Doubt” ends with almost the same degree of ambiguity, but instead of being a copout or frustrating (as some find “The Lady or the Tiger?”), it plays brilliantly to the difficulty we often find in real-life situations and to the strength of the conviction of Sister Aloysius.
The play also makes the wise choice of setting the play in the 60s instead of the present day when the stigma surrounding priests is so strong that any accusation would be strongly heeded.
“Doubt” deals with some pretty heavy subject matter and features more than one dramatic confrontation, but it does make room for some levity. There are some well-earned laughs sprinkled throughout, mostly at the expense of Sister Aloysius’ gruff personality. Clearly, several audience members recalled some ruler-rapped knuckles from their past. The acting was superb across the board, although it would have been interesting to see what Jones would have brought to the role of Sister Aloysius.
“Doubt” is a challenging play and you might leave the theater with a completely different interpretation than your date, but that just shows how elusive the “truth” really is and in the end the only thing we can really believe in is ourselves.