Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Review of "Doubt" at the Merriam Theater, published in the News of Delaware County

John Patrick Shanley’s recent play, “Doubt: A Parable,” is dramatically very powerful. An investigation filled with difficult choices and demanding paths drives the plot, this further heightened by the superb performances given at the Merriam Theater.

Unfortunately, it’s dramatically a cheat on a number of levels, none of which involves the lack of certainty achieved at the final curtain.

Set in a Catholic school in 1964, “Doubt” begins as a conflict over teaching styles, with the elder (and seemingly cynical) Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) condescendingly warning the fresh-faced (and quite naïve) Sister James (Lisa Joyce) that “every easy choice hides within its consequences tomorrow.” However, Aloysius quickly shifts to her real concern—the well being of Donald Muller, their first Negro student—who has fallen into the protective care of Father Flynn, a pastor transferred through three parishes in five years.

Doubt, suspicion, and gossip dominate the play from here, as Flynn shows all the signs of guilt, but credibly defends himself at every turn—winning over James, and threatening Aloysius’ future. When the boy’s mother appears, she partially acquiesces to the alleged abuse. Already thinking her twelve year old son is gay, she only wants him to make it to June, so he can graduate to greater opportunity.

After a final verbal battle, Aloysius confirms her suspicions, while Flynn receives a transfer to a better parish, leaving both nuns in fear, distress, and doubt.

While this ending mimics what we now know often occurred, the play projects so many modern sensibilities onto its characters that it’s a wonder Shanley set Doubt in 1964 at all. Beyond the attitudes of the boy’s mother, the older Aloysius—who’s a staunch defender of everything else Catholic—nevertheless rails against the “power structure” dominated entirely by men. Instead of showing deference to Flynn, as she would have, she constantly challenges and insults his authority, and the priest, who forty years ago would have been beyond suspicion, now becomes guilty on mere shards of evidence. This last point, which drags the “constantly expecting Flynn’s guilt” audience throughout, is something Shanley only gets because of the recent scandals.

Like I said, it’s a cheat. More to the point, it’s a wish fulfillment that also fails. The play seems to say, “Oh, if only there had been this completely implacable Mother Superior to weed out these bad priests forty years ago!” And yet, because of the ending, it does so without completely saying that as well.

In this, the twist at the end fails too, as it only represents what happened, contradicting a line in Shanley’s own play, “that the truth doesn’t make for good parables.” But then what instruction emerges from a parable that basically argues, “even with the best people, guided by our best lights, things still go badly, the wicked go unpunished, and the good must suffer?” What moral should anyone take from such a tale?

Shanley managed to take the Tony and Pulitzer Awards for Best New Play. I’m not surprised; this is the sort of thing the people who make those decisions love: a powerful melodrama about a foreign and corrupt institution, presented through the scrim of modern sensibilities. Did Shanley deserve these awards? The play closes on Sister Aloysius crying, “I have doubts, I have doubts.” Yeah, I have them too.

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