If a play is as good the second time around, it is truly compelling; if it gets even better on second seeing, it may very well be great. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable is such a play. A transfer from Off Broadway to Broadway can be a risky business: The larger new venue may dissipate the impact of the intensely intimate. No such thing has happened here. The acting has become the tiniest bit broader, as the house probably requires; the drama cuts, if anything, deeper than before, and the pity of it all is even more encompassing.
Doubt centers on Sister Aloysius, who runs the Saint Nicholas Church School in the Bronx of 1964. She is a feisty woman: Formerly married and widowed, she knows enough about the world to be wary, pragmatic, and, if need be, preemptive. When impressionable young Sister James, the eighth-grade teacher, finds the phys-ed teacher, Father Flynn, perhaps a trifle too close to the only black student, Donald Muller, Sister Aloysius’s hackles go way up. Father Flynn is a pawkily caring teacher whose sermons are full of shrewd humor, and who handles his boys with canny camaraderie. May he not have got Donald drunk on the communion wine, and then … ? These characters are drawn by Shanley with magisterial know-how. All are dedicated to doing good, but their notions of good are in constant conflict with one another—or even themselves. They behave with a surface consistency that can yield to jolting surprises: The weak show moments of astounding fortitude, the strong display cracks that may be momentary faltering or possibly something more. Or they can be totally, uprootingly unpredictable, as is Mrs. Muller, Donald’s mother, summoned by Sister Aloysius to her office for a confrontation that nearly shatters both women. What makes Doubt so wonderful is that it is imbued with an author’s impartial love for all his characters, but a love that reserves the right to some skepticism, a soupçon of irony, a suspicion that an excess of virtue may not be a virtue at all. Yet however enlightened Shanley’s outlook may be, it would be of scant worth if it were not based on a solid sense of drama, of how to infiltrate growing conflict into seeming cordiality, and, above all, how to manipulate language.
For language is, as it should be, Shanley’s forte. His characters speak a mite more pointedly, wittily, eloquently than strict probability might dictate. But they never become too clever, too monolithic, or, worse yet, too poetic. Their language may flirt with the borderline literary, but it never transgresses, never crosses the boundary of the illicit. It is indeed the language of parable, the language of a simple story that means vastly more than it says. It sings with the music of the possible stretched to the tautness of a violin string; it resonates with the pathos of the implicit, the uncertain, the doubt that is the glory and agony of living.
Even so, the play would not be what it is without the masterly performances of Cherry Jones, whose steadily pursed lips can hurl wordless imprecations; Brían F. O’Byrne, whose querying pauses resound with a sneaky rhetoric; Heather Goldenhersh, whose tergiversations are a continuous game of table tennis with, or against, herself; and Adriane Lenox, who shows that the devious ways of motherhood may elevate compromise into sublimity. Add to this Doug Hughes’s understatedly unerring direction, plus immaculate décor (John Lee Beatty), costuming (Catherine Zuber), and lighting (Pat Collins), and you have a play, a production, an experience to last you a lifetime.
Doubt: A Parable
By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes.
Walter Kerr Theatre.