Arlington — Playwright John Patrick Shanley’s imaginative scripts for stage and screen (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Cellini, Outside Mullingar, Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano) strike a lot of different tones: with Shanley, you never know if you’ll get funny, sad, talkative, meandering, poetical, or just plain odd. But he hasn't, before or since, written anything else quite like Doubt, a Parable, a blunt and blazing moral thriller about what happens when the Catholic nun heading a Bronx elementary school in 1964 begins to suspect the young, popular parish priest who comes to teach religion classes and coach basketball. The play won four Tony Awards in 2005, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—and was expanded in a 2008 film version starring Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
This, apparently, was a story the Bronx-born Shanley needed to tell, and he’s never crafted a more tightly wound, economical and moving work.
Done right, Doubt is a play that grabs hold and doesn’t let go for 90 fast-moving minutes—and Theatre Arlington is doing it right. As directed by Emily Scott Banks, who led TA’s production of W;t last season, and with two fine actors going toe-to-toe in the lead roles—Amber Devlin is Sister Aloysius and Aaron Roberts is Father Brendan Flynn—we can’t look away from this complex and visceral human battle.
Sister Aloysius (it’s pronounced “Aah-low-ISH-us”) is the principal of St. Nicholas, where the mostly Italian and Irish Catholic students are “uniformly terrified of you,” says Sister James (Camille Monae), the gentle young nun who teaches eighth grade. “Yes. That’s how it works,” says Sister Aloysius. Sister James hopes to befriend and inspire her students, but Sister Aloysius tells her she’s there to be a “fierce moral guardian” and not a buddy. “You stand at the door, Sister….If you are vigilant, they will not have to be.” She’s so rigid and unyielding we can’t help but laugh a bit at the start.
Sister James is more in sync with young Father Flynn, who wants parish families to see priests and nuns as “members of their family.” In his sermons, he talks like a regular guy, not a theologian; he’s OK with a secular song or two for the Christmas program; he has “bull sessions” with the basketball team over cookies and Kool-Aid.
As the play opens, Sister Aloysius is meeting with Sister James, but we soon see that she has more on her mind than the young nun’s teaching skills: she’s worried about the school’s first “Negro” student, a boy in Sister James’ class who was singled out for special attention from Father Flynn soon after he arrived at the school.
And there it is: a first, niggling moment of doubt. Yes, Sister Aloysius is a bit old-school and comical—but what if she’s right? What if her insistence on the “hard and thankless work” of protecting children’s right to be children is more to the point than any of the warmth and nurturing on offer from Sister James and Father Flynn?
What happens next is an escalation of doubts, both on and offstage. Who can we believe? Shanley is masterful at giving us moments that seem to shine a light on truth, but then re-angling that light in the next scenes and casting us back into confusion. Perhaps Father Flynn is all that he seems: caring, sociable, progressive. We want so much to like him. Perhaps, as she says herself, Sister Aloysius’s doubts will only “create something by saying it” and ruin the work of a good man. Even Sister James’ innocence comes under suspicion: what’s more important to her, her own “peace of mind” or her children’s welfare? Shanley treats every one of his characters with real compassion: he lets us see the priest’s essential loneliness, the young sister’s yearning to be loved by her students, the older nun’s struggle to keep the faith with her church and her chosen life.
Sister Aloysius knows that “men run everything”—not just the Catholic Church of 1964, but the world. Not surprising, then, that she turns to other women for help: to Sister James, to the boy’s mother Mrs. Muller (La’Netia D. Taylor). If there’s something wrong about Father Flynn, she knows, “We are going to have to stop him ourselves.”
Devlin is poker-faced and powerful as Sister Aloysius, whose occasional flashes of dry wit hint at a past life and a worldliness she keeps firmly under wraps. As Sister James, Monae does a good job of projecting the young nun’s untested idealism. She’s all too impressionable: as she’s pulled back and forth by the opposing force fields of Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, we rejoice whenever she shows some strength of her own. As Mrs. Muller, Taylor begins by sounding small and tentative in the face of Sister’s authority. But as she fights for what her son needs, every sentence seems twice as strong as the one before; it’s a short but compelling performance. And Aaron Roberts is terrifically appealing as the young priest. His jokey, down-to-earth warmth makes it hard for us to wonder if there’s something colder, darker to be found—but when it’s needed, Roberts can give his words the right bit of edge. Just as Shanley wants, Father Flynn keeps us guessing.
A diagonal view of the principal’s office and courtyard is the play’s single set (a joint effort by designer Tony Curtis and scenic artist Roxanne Mather), and it’s filled with memory-pricking detail: a heavy black telephone; crucifixes—and a picture of the pope—hanging on unforgiving block walls; dark wooden doors and windows; and outside, a courtyard in winter, with bare rose bushes and a statue of the Madonna. Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes are precise and right, and the period music selections (from sound designer Jordana Abrenica) let a welcome bit of outside air into this enclosed world.
Shanley’s script is a tour de force of doubts not quite resolved, questions not entirely answered. It works as a detective story, and as a pained commentary on issues we struggle with today. It is even, in the end, a look at the value of doubt itself, perhaps as an antidote to the complete, unshakeable “certainty” that seems so much in charge on the air waves and in politics. It’s always dangerous to let playwrights have the last word about their own work, but in a preface to the play Shanley writes:
“The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie. Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise.”
» You can win a pair of tickets to any performance April 3-6 here.