Friday, Nov. 3, 2006 | Tonight’s performance of “Doubt” marks Tony-award winner Cherry Jones’ 500th appearance as main character Sister Aloysius. You would never know it. How lucky for theater-goers across the country that Jones is reprising the role she originated and is now performing in the National Touring production.
“Doubt,” John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, unflinchingly looks at, well, doubt. Doubting one’s self, doubting the truth, doubting that what is seen is not what it seems. The kind of doubt that can paralyze even the most faithful of believers, in this case, two nuns in a Catholic Church and School in 1964 in the Bronx.
Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of seducing an altar boy. By discussing this unfounded suspicion with the naive Sister James (Lisa Joyce), Aloysius instigates her own personal investigation of Father Flynn.
Aloysius, certain if she reports her suspicions to the church hierarchy she will not be taken seriously, fears Father Flynn will then be protected. Everyone knows the Monsignor favors Flynn. She is only a woman (this is 1964) and, she has no proof.
Cherry Jones’ imposing Aloysius, tall and slim in her long black habit, sheds layers and layers of protective skin, revealing great depths of character and humanity. Every single movement, every single vocalization draws out an unexpected quality of Sister Aloysius that alternately breaks your heart and endears you to her. Jones is mesmerizing in the role, and manages to realistically sprinkle in a ghost of at least one of your childhood teachers or principals.
The search for truth jars the complacent Sister James into a dark night of the soul. Where she once turned a blind eye, willingly or naively, to unseemly events, she is now awakened. Joyce portrays the gentle, good-intentioned James skillfully and with heart. And Joyce artfully depicts Sister James’ transformation from naiveté to trouble and doubting young woman. She wants to believe that all is well; she senses that it is not. It’s so much easier to pretend not to see the bad.
Father Flynn, friendly father or sinister sermonizer? He speaks to the audience as if he is giving a sermon, bringing us into the fellowship. Smoothly played by Chris McGarry, he captures the precarious balance between the popular, well-liked priest who has just enough of a shady side for the audience to doubt him.
And the doubt gnaws. Sister Aloysius interviews the altar boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller, (Adriane Lenox) and we are at once appalled and compassionate as she reacts and reasons. It’s a tricky role and Lenox (also the originator of Mrs. Muller) beautifully executes it.
Lighting is severe and sets are stark, fitting the mood accordingly. The scene sets revolve between Sister Aloysius’ office and the church courtyard. Efficient and effective, the sparseness of props leaves more room for the audience to scrutinize the characters and the psychological drama unfolding.
A day later, I’m still thinking about Sister Aloysius and her search for truth. And that’s the beauty of “Doubt.”