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Touched by An Angel?

This Drama Gamely Explores Catholic Church's Crisis of Faith in The 1960s

Clinton Brandhagen in Doubt

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/10/2008

Doubt, A Parable

By John Patrick Shanley

At the Everyman Theatre through Oct. 5

Did he or didn't he? Did Father Flynn, the assistant pastor of the Bronx's St. Nicholas Church, molest one of his altar boys in 1964? Or is he being falsely accused by Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas School?

Those are the questions that drive John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 play, Doubt, a Parable, now onstage at the Everyman Theatre and soon to be a big-budget holiday movie directed by Shanley and starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Shanley does such a good job of doling out clues--one to support the nun's accusation, then one to bolster the priest's defense, another for the nun, another for the priest--that he keeps the audience guessing all night long. Theatergoers are still guessing when they're walking back to their cars after the cast's last bows.

But Shanley is clearly after something more ambitious than mere puzzlement. The playwright's program notes muse philosophically on the very nature of doubt--is it a weakness to be resisted or an intellectual opportunity to be embraced? In the play's opening scene, Father Flynn delivers a sermon that muses in much the same manner. "What do you do when you're not sure?" he asks his congregation.

What you do, if you're Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, is shout accusations at one another. There are perfunctory nods in the direction of deeper philosophical issues, but the play largely boils down to a battle of wills between a young, idealistic priest and an older, skeptical nun. Shanley may have succeeded on the who-done-it level but he has come up short on the dark-night-of-the-soul front.

It doesn't help matters that Everyman's two leads are able to project certitude in some scenes and doubt in others but never able to wrestle with the two qualities in the same scene. When Clinton Brandhagen's Father Flynn protests his innocence, you never get the sense that he's covering up a secret. When he finally confesses that secret, there's scarcely a trace left of his former confidence; it's like a switch has been thrown. And when Laura Giannarelli's Sister Aloysius bores in on the priest with unshakable ferocity, there's no hint that she harbors second thoughts. When those second thoughts ultimately surface, they seem to come out of nowhere.

The intermission-less, hour-and-a-half play takes place during a few weeks in the fall of 1964. The second scene, in the sickly institutional green of the principal's office, finds the spark plug-shaped Sister Aloysius lecturing one of her newest teachers, Sister James, on the need for toughness and suspicion. "Innocence is a form of laziness," the old battle-ax proclaims, and she urges the young nun to be more formal and less enthusiastic with her students.

In the process of grilling Sister James on her eighth-grade classroom, Sister Aloysius uncovers the fact that the school's first African-American student, Donald Muller, returned from a visit to Father Flynn's rectory with alcohol on his breath. This so alarms the older nun that she calls the priest into her office for a discussion of the Christmas pageant, and then springs the alcohol accusation on him. Father Flynn claims that he caught Donald sneaking communion wine from the sacristy and took him to the rectory to reprimand him, but Sister Aloysius isn't buying the alibi.

Back and forth they go, the tall priest with his Roman collar and boyish Irish face and the short nun in the black bonnet and black shawl of the Sisters of Charity. Caught in the middle is Sister James (Katy Carkuff), as someone whose innocence is not a form of laziness but rather a kind of skin that she can't remove. This unworldly woman wants to believe in the liberal idealism of the Catholic Church's recent Second Vatican Council but finds it hard to trust anything after the even more recent assassination of America's first Catholic president. Far more down to earth is Donald's mother, played by Dawn Ursula in a short but dazzling turn. Sister Aloysius is so accustomed to being the hard-bitten realist in any situation that she is taken aback when this black woman dressed up like Jacqueline Kennedy reveals a realism that bites harder than anything the nun had ever imagined.

You can understand why Doubt ran for 525 performances on Broadway. Shanley expertly sustains the ambiguity throughout, and he slips in some witty satire at the expense of Catholic schools. As someone who attended the eighth grade in a Catholic school in 1964, this reviewer can attest to the reality of these battles between the old guard and the new in '60s Catholic culture. But I can also attest that there was much more to the push-and-pull between faith and doubt in those troubled years than Shanley ever gets a handle on.

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