Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Blessed Incarnation: John Patrick Shanley's Doubt at the National Theatre

The portions are small but the fare is choice at the National Theatre, where the national tour of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Doubt is playing through March 25. Shanley is best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie Moonstruck, still one of the most delightful American comedies from the 1980s. But it was Doubt that announced Shanley’s arrival as a major American playwright. Although this taut, four-character drama clocks in at a spare ninety minutes, not a second is wasted, and the play's startling, unexpected curtain line will leave you pondering for days.

Cherry Jones, the only holdover in the cast from Doubt's phenomenal Broadway run, is the leading name on the marquee and deservedly so. As Sister Aloysius, the elderly, no-nonsense principal of a 1960s Catholic boys’ school, Jones creates an astonishing, completely convincing character that never fails to win audiences over. Yet Chris McGarry is every bit her equal as Father Flynn, a progressive parish priest whom Sister Aloysius suspects of molesting a young student. The stage is set for a grand duel of words and gestures, where nothing is quite as it seems.

The play's primary question is whether the priest is, in fact, a child molester -- and in keeping with the play’s title, Shanley never gives a definitive answer. What he offers instead are more questions, more occasions for doubt. The student Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of molesting is also the only African-American at the school, and there’s a distinct possibility that the sister's accusations might be motivated by thinly veiled racism. Meanwhile, the student’s mother -- played by Caroline Stefanie Clay with too much self-confidence and not enough desperation -- reveals that her husband is violently abusive, and that her son might be homosexual. She seems grateful to Father Flynn for his protection, and most shockingly, doesn’t seem concerned about the possibility of sexual assault.

Lisa Joyce excels in the thankless supporting role of Sister James, a naive teacher who in this tangled situation seems thoroughly out of her depth. In her early scenes with Sister Aloysius, Joyce displays unforced comic timing, but as the play grows more pensive and serious, so does she. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius talk to Sister James as a confederate, a confidante, a subordinate, a confessor, and finally a judge. Most audience members will disagree with the young novice's verdict, but Joyce helps us see why she reaches her own conclusions.

Still, as good as the performances are, the best reason to see Doubt is the play itself: Nothing Shanley has written before or since can match its overall quality, or the enthralling effect it can have on an audience. Director Doug Hughes, who helmed the show on Broadway, has recreated his spare, just-the-facts-ma'am staging for this national tour: Sets, lighting and costumes are exactly like the original production, down to the last stitch, spot and brick. True, the National Theatre’s echoing acoustics can make Shanley’s dialogue difficult to understand at times. But on the whole, this new incarnation of Doubt is the closest thing to a top-flight Broadway show that you're likely to see outside of New York City.

There's no doubt about one thing: Doubt is not to be missed.

Doubt: A Parable. By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes. Ninety minutes, no intermission. Through March 25 at the National Theatre. Tickets $38.75 to $78.75. Coming soon to Hershey, PA, New Haven, CT, Charlotte, NC, and Baltimore, MD. For more information, visit To purchase tickets, call Telecharge at (800) 447-7400.

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