Doubt – A Parable

It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue. (From the play)

When Doubt played Broadway in 2005, it garnered both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. At the time, there was little public awareness of division within the church. Officials went unquestioned, in fact, were lionized. Since then, fractures appear with regularity from the Vatican on down. Status of men and women in ecumenical hierarchy is in contention. Thousands of priests have been charged with serial molestation, law suits addressed. Add to this the freshly topical struggle between conservative and liberal approaches to education (and life) and the melodrama remains potent.

Amy Ryan (Sister Aloysius), Zoe Kazan (Sister James)

It’s 1984. Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan, stepping in for the ailing Tyne Daley), principal of a Bronx Catholic school, leads with rigid piety. Classes in the arts are disdained as useless; sensitivity towards students seen as indulgent. As if an army sergeant, the nun believes deprivation is necessary preparation for life. Problem students are to be shunted forward becoming someone else’s responsibility after graduation.

Initially balancing her authoritarian rule are Sister James (a splendid Zoe Kazan – tremulous, naïve), whose joy in teaching offers warmth and understanding, and Aloysius’ immediate superior, Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber), a man of patience and compassion who strives to put “a friendly face” on interaction with the church.

Aloysius handles the malleable nun by insisting on dogma. She convinces the young woman that her natural feelings should be denied causing sleepless nights, awkwardness in class, and, in Sister James’ words “estrangement from God.” Father Flynn, whose malfeasance includes the use of ballpoint pens, sugar in his tea, overlong fingernails, and the admiration of students, is not so easily routed.  

In response to the principal’s prodding, Sister James observes the school’s single African American student acted oddly after a rectory meeting with Father Flynn and expresses concern. Aloysius ignites like a heat seeking missile. Donald Muller was caught doing something against church rules. Sympathetically admonished by Father Flynn, he was given a second chance. When the boy admitted his failing at home his father beat him. All this is supported first by the ambushed priest, then by Mrs. Muller summoned to the principal’s office.

Amy Ryan (Sister Aloysius) and Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Mrs. Muller)

It’s a terrific scene. Donald’s beleaguered parent is grateful for any kindness shown her isolated son, even should that include the “interference” Sister Aloysius implies. “It’s only until June,” his mom says referring to graduation. She’s sufficiently perceptive to sense a vendetta and refuses to cooperate. Quincy Tyler Bernstine is excellent in the role.

Sister Aloysius is thwarted but undaunted. She goes outside dictated authority to pursue the matter further. Father Flynn is forced to step away from Donald. The priest, though angry, is dignified and resigned. He finds higher water. (Sister James has no such recourse.) Passages here play like a battle between good and evil, but nothing’s that simple. Consequences are suffered by all.

At last the instigator herself suffers. This seems to come out of nowhere. Perhaps evil has no purpose without good to fight. Perhaps it’s the void that evokes her own doubt. Perhaps playwright John Patrick Shanley painted himself into a corner. We’ll never know.

Amy Ryan’s Sister Aloysius is aptly vehement and tightly wound, but a moment of less restrained fury (she hovers at one) would have added variance to the role offering a glimpse of inner turmoil.

Liev Schreiber (Father Flynn), Amy Ryan (Sister Aloysius)

As Father Flynn, Live Schreiber is a gentle giant. Tempered acting shows the priest’s self respect and that of his calling. Brief sermons are delivered with benevolence and an invisibly raised eyebrow. Anger palpably roils, but never controls. We see intelligence and discernment.

Director Scott Ellis moves his players with clear motivation. Timing is pitch perfect. Sister Aloysius is reflexive, Sister James sputters, Father Flynn considers. Flynn’s pointedly notating ideas for sermons works beautifully, as does Sister James anxious gaze or down turned eyes. Aloysius’s physical tightness presents armor. At one point, the outrageously loud, persistent sound of a crow makes the play suddenly seem like farce. Becoming a cacophonous flock recalls scenes in 1940s films where crashing waves represent metaphors. It’s overdone.

David Rockwell’s set, though well composed, looks cheaply constructed, its trompe l’oeil poorly executed. Stained glass resembles paint by numbers. When we enter the theater, the stage is pitch and stark with only high, arched windows. That less is more approach might’ve been more effective.

Linda Cho’s costumes are, as always, spot on.

This is a solid production of an intriguing play eliciting discussion over drinks afterwards.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Amy Ryan (Sister Aloysius), Zoe Kazan (Sister James), Liev Schreiber (Father Flynn)

Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Doubt – A Parable by John Patrick Shanle
Directed by Scott Ellis

Todd Haimes Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Through April 21, 2024

About Alix Cohen (1725 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.