Doubt: Nun Cries Sex Abuse, But This Sister’s a Disgrace

My difficulty with John Patrick Shanley’s highly regarded moral parable Doubt at Manhattan Theatre Club has all to do with the dubious credibility of its central character, the righteous, nagging nun.

Rarely has any woman-least of all a nun-enraged me so much. Yet if anything, I’m sentimental about nuns, as Mr. Shanley is in his dedication to his play:

“The play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving other hospitals, schools and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?”

We would expect, then, that Mr. Shanley would have us sympathize with Sister Aloysius in Doubt, though we know the dramatist is too fine a writer to see life in simplistic black-and-white terms. The Sister accuses a popular and apparently innocent priest at her school of molesting a child. Where’s the truth? Whose side will we take?

But, far from seeing Mr. Shanley’s Sister Aloysius as a good and caring woman, or even a godly woman who might be mistaken, I saw her as a moral disgrace from the start. Her fearsome backbone is meant to impress, but she demeans all charity and kindness. Every flinty word of Christian conviction that I was meant to admire from of her sanctimoniously pursed lips enraged me. Blame the frighteningly steely performance of Cherry Jones with her arms crossed into her black habit in permanent accusation! But I hadn’t a shred of doubt about the rights and wrongs of Sister Aloysius’ witch hunt against her fellow priest-and surely I was meant to? She’s blind bigotry wrapped in a nun’s habit.

True, the audience appeared to find her a likable “character” at first, like any “strict but fair” schoolteacher who knows a thing or two. “Innocence is a form of laziness,” she announces typically to simpering Sister James (the very appealing Heather Goldenhersh). “Innocent teachers are easily duped. You must be canny, Sister James.”

“But I want to feel my students can talk to me,” she pleads naïvely.

“They’re children,” comes the emphatic reply inviting no response. “They can talk to each other. It’s more important they have a fierce moral guardian. You stand at the door, Sister. You are the gatekeeper. If you are vigilant, they will not need to be.”

Mr. Shanley has caught her voice of unarguable conviction brilliantly. One knows her type, you think with a shudder. A “character,” though? A nun capable of sweet reason? For one malign thing, the old bat kills Sister James’ enthusiasm and innocence. Her first words of any consequence to her are the joyless pronouncement: “Art. Waste of time.” She could be an unsweet Jean Brodie (“Chrysanthemums, such serviceable flowers!”)

But still, Sister Aloysius is meant to be a saintly representative of the church! A fierce protector of moral values! The kind of dedicated teacher and worthy nun-“much maligned and ridiculed,” as Mr. Shanley puts it, asking “who among us has been so generous?”

And to that I would respond: many, many people.

Doubt is set in 1964 in St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, and Mr. Shanley has partly drawn on the genre of topical conscience plays that leave us with Food for Thought. To strike a note of old-fashioned cynicism, the production directed by Doug Hughes is made for a Broadway transfer: It’s short (90 minutes without intermission); the quartet of actors led by Ms. Jones is first-rate; its theme-priestly child abuse-is timely; and we’re left with a little something To Chew On (e.g., Is absolute certainty a balm to doubt? Or did the priest really do it?).

In its central standoff between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, the teacher she accuses of molesting a black choirboy, Doubt is a modern relative of David Mamet’s infuriating 1994 psychodrama of sexual harassment, Oleanna. The question is who we believe, and what prejudices are ignited in us along the way. As you can tell, my prejudice against Sister Aloysius shows. But she gives me no choice. The same flaw spoils both Mr. Shanley’s drama and Mr. Mamet’s, however. Mr. Mamet’s neurotic female student has as flimsy a case against her teacher as Mr. Shanley’s vigilant nun against her priest.

Astonishingly, Sister Aloysius never reveals even a shred of evidence against the accused priest. She acts on faith and takes faith too far. She “suspects”; she feels it in her bones; she “knows” these things. But she cannot prove it for a second. Furthermore, she has a motive: She dislikes the young Father Flynn’s modern teaching ideas and sermons. (One of them is a parable of doubt: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”)

But Father Flynn is unshakable. The terrific, humane Brian F. O’Byrne-who could even make a murder-rapist sympathetic in Frozen, for which he won a Tony-has reason to splutter in bewildered indignation here. His Father is innocent as day. I knew a caring teacher like him. We all did. We were lucky.

You can accuse anyone of anything. And something, some mud, some small doubt, will stick. But even the boy’s mother (the fourth fine performance of the evening, from Adriane Lenox) doesn’t agree with her son’s “protector.” In her determination to damn the teacher, Sister Aloysius would damn the boy, too. The priest’s reputation-his name, all he stands for-are of no consequence to her. She will even lie to prove “the truth” about him.

“In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God,” she explains glibly.

That is what all religious fanatics do. And my doubt about Doubt is a serious one. I could see nothing positive in Sister Aloysius, only her blindness and bigotry and injustice. She’s no teacher, no maligned nun. She’s dangerous and she’s godless. When she begs pathetically for our sympathy with the melodramatic curtain line-“I have doubts! I have such doubts!”-she leaves us cold. We are not saints, and our sympathy has long since been forfeited.

Tenn’s One-Acts

The pleasure of Tennessee Williams’ company in Five by Tenn at the Manhattan Theatre Club is partly ghostly. The ghost of Williams is embodied elegantly by Jeremy Lawrence, who acts as our wry host and the drawling dramatist himself. And there are the five, mostly unknown pieces by our national poet of bruised hearts that inhabit the stage as ghostly reminders of the uncertain, playful talent of Williams’ youth and of the wretched despair of the mature playwright.

Some of plays have been recently discovered, and all are being seen in New York for the first time. Minor-key they might be, but the pseudo-controversy over whether they demean Williams’ reputation is misplaced. The umpteenth mediocre revival of, say, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does real harm. But under the sensitive direction of Michael Khan, the opportunity to see these lost one-act plays make an intriguing portrait of a great artist.

The opening sketch of the young man and his suffocating mother in Summer at the Lake from 1937 is the prototype for trapped Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie of 1944. The Fat Man’s Wife turns out to be an early, lovelorn pastiche of Cowardesque romantic desire, of all sophisticated, unsexy things. Adam and Eve on a Ferry (1939) is a surprising comic doodle, a curiosity piece about an elderly woman in search of sensual love and D. H. Lawrence (who was one of Williams’ literary influences).

But Williams wrote about the human heart and laid it bare, and his 1959 And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens is an astonishing story about a touching, young New Orleans property owner and transvestite (given a smashing performance by Cameron Folmar) who bribes and seduces a hard-drinking heterosexual sailor into living with him for a while. Tell Sad Stories is less about erotic sexual fantasy, perhaps, than the desperate need for companionship in a community of dangerous freedom.

I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow was written in 1970, when Williams could scarcely bring himself to write any more. It’s a heartbroken poem, perfectly performed by Kathleen Chalfant and David Rasche, about two people who reach out to the other in the pain of being alive. The haunting, emotional reference to “Dragon Country” is unmistakably the Williams whose self-described “blue devils” sank him into terrible despair. Yet the play’s tragic message might be Beckett’s: “I can’t go on. I must.”

“Are you asleep?” the woman says to the man softly. “Are you asleep now?”

“I can’t imagine tomorrow,” comes the answer.

What a thing not to imagine. It takes our breath away. And by then, for Tennessee Williams, there was no escape.