Doubt

John Patrick Shanley
Walter Kerr Theatre, New York
(2006)

In 2005, Doubt has won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play and the Pulitzer Drama Prize. The play is also the only straight drama currently on Broadway that has run for any significant length of time - nine months so far. It is easy to see why it has been so successful.

Well-written plays about moral dilemmas will always challenge audiences. When they work on many levels, as the Greeks and more recently David Mamet's Oleanna have and Doubt undoubtedly does, they give audience members a really special night out.

The action is set in a Bronx Convent (slickly but simply created by designer John Lee Beatty) in 1964, the year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It opens with a sermon delivered by the convent's priest Father Flynn. This relatively young man, with the broad nasal accent of a local, is played by Brian F. O'Byrne.

His sermon addresses the subject of doubt and most controversially, considers the possibility that God may not exist or, slightly more charitably, will turn a blind eye to Catholics in their hour of need.

Quoting the Second Ecumenical Council, this likeable man is a moderniser who believes in befriending his charges and would be happy to introduce them to such heresies as Frosty the Snowman. He also doubles as a basketball coach, and the 90-minute play's funniest moments appear in a monologue delivered to his young team.

Problems arise when the school, previously divided between Irish and Italian elements, admits 12-year-old Donald, its first "Coloured" pupil.

Everyone is very protective particularly his teacher, the rubber-faced Heather Goldenhersh's timid but committed Sister James and the school's disciplinarian Principal, Sister Aloysius played by Cherry Jones (Eileen Atkins takes over in the New Year).

Everything runs fairly predictably until Donald starts behaving strangely and is caught with alcohol on his breath after a one-on-one session with the friendly Father Flynn.

In a highly dramatic scene, Sister Aloysius confronts him with an accusation of pederasty, which he denies much to the relief of the idealistic Sister James, who wants to see the good in everyone.

At this point, the principal becomes a cross between Miss Marple and Perry Mason as she attempts to prove that a mortal sin has been committed. She then comes up against a cumbersome church hierarchy and Donald's protective mother (Adriane Lenox), not to mention a very belligerent and, when cornered, threatening Father Flynn. To discover the outcome, it will be necessary to book a ticket.

Not only does Doubt provide a gripping detective story, it also addresses the topical issue of abuse by priests, the gradual rise of African-Americans and the rigidity of the Catholic Church as late as the 1960s. In fact, there is even more to chew over than this brief selection.

The writing is good and the detailed use of language adds real depth, with subliminal messages emerging about both Flynn, through double entendres, and Donald by his mother's use of the single taboo word "hell" that reveals so much.

Director Doug Hughes has his cast perfectly drilled and both Cherry Jones, who conveys her own character's intrinsic goodness but also her suffering as doubt attacks, and Brian F. O'Byrne as the man who might be an innocent or a devil are outstanding.

Doubt is already set to make its European version at the English Theatre in Vienna and London audiences will surely have an opportunity to witness this exceptional play before too long.

Philip also interviewed Doubt's writer, John Patrick Shanley.

Jill Sharp reviewed this production with a different cast.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher