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A classic clash of generations

Who is righteous? Even most of the actors don't know as Doubt, in Tampa this week, considers opposing viewpoints.

Published April 22, 2007


Perspective is everything in Doubt, the play by John Patrick Shanley that in 2005 won both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best new play. Subtitled "A Parable," it is set in a Catholic church and school in the Bronx in 1964.

That was a watershed time for Catholicism, two years after the ecumenical council known as Vatican II, when Pope John XXIII declared it was time to cast off the stifling traditions of the Roman church, "to let in a little fresh air," he said.

In the United States, it was a time of folk Masses and guitar-strumming priests, of liberating the liturgy from Latin and seeking to make the church more relevant to the everyday lives of parishioners.

Shanley's play is an artful account of the confrontation between a charismatic associate pastor, Father Flynn, and an old-line nun, Sister Aloysius. Flynn is an advocate for "progressive education and a welcoming church," but Aloysius, the school's principal, opposes any liberalization.

Flynn wants to include Frosty the Snowman in the Christmas pageant. Aloysius thinks the song "espouses a pagan belief in magic" and should be banned from the radio.

This classic clash of ideas - of secularism and spiritual purity - also has a dark side: Aloysius is certain that Flynn has sexually abused a 12-year-old boy, though she can't prove it.

"It was so smart of John to place the play two years after Vatican II," said Cherry Jones, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Aloysius on Broadway and now headlines the tour that comes to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center this week.

"I love that there's this great generational rift between Aloysius and Flynn. On every basic level, these two people could not be more diametrically opposed to one another. Flynn embraces Vatican II, and Aloysius finds it to be bordering on blasphemy.

"And all this is going on before we knew what we now know about the shame of the church."

Past and present

Shanley, born in 1950, is a prolific playwright whose works include Sailor's Song, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Where's My Money? He is probably best known for his Academy Award-winning original screenplay for the 1987 film Moonstruck with Cher and Nicolas Cage.

He went to parochial schools, including St. Anthony's Grammar School in the Bronx, run by the Sisters of Charity and the model for the school in Doubt. His inspiration for the play was a relative's experience with a priest convicted of child molestation.

"John seems to have found in his background a situation and a moment in time that serves perfectly as a metaphor for concerns this society has right now," said Doug Hughes, who won the Tony for best director with Doubt. "There's a real elegance that in using the events of 1964 set within one square block of the Bronx he's able to address the agony of doubt and the consequences of certainty."

Shanley was not available for an interview. Hughes argues that the playwright had more than the church on his mind in 2003 and 2004 when he was working on Doubt.

"At the time, we were ramping up to invade Iraq, and the policy of the government was one of dead certainty about the righteousness of what we were doing," he said. "I think that had a lot to do with John's composition of the play."

Two sides to the story

Doubt does have philosophical and perhaps even political weight, but the gripping one-on-one conflict between Aloysius and Flynn is what drives the play, a tightly plotted 90-minute work performed without intermission. Each character is utterly convincing.

"It's a play, like so many really great plays, where you're inclined to agree with the last person who has spoken," Hughes said. "Who is to be believed? Who is righteous? It's terribly difficult to know."

In a garden scene, Flynn played by Chris McGarry pleads his case to a young nun named Sister James (Lisa Joyce) that Catholic schools have to loosen up. Complaining that Sister Aloysius is "like a block of ice," he says, "Children need warmth, kindness, understanding!"

It's a compelling argument that freed many a Catholic school from the rigid rule of priests and nuns.

"Now are these the words of a man who is wantonly or for some sick reason exploiting his position for dastardly ends, or are these the sincere words of a man who hopes education can be exhilarating?" Hughes asked.

The director went on to summarize the other side of the debate.

"Listen to Sister Aloysius make a vivid case for the conservative view that teachers are not to be students' 'best friends,' that priests and nuns are not like the laity, and the dividing line between the laity and priests and nuns should be maintained. Reading backward from the history of what has come to light, you think, 'Well, the old girl really had a point.' But in '64, her case may have seemed rather archaic and out of touch."

A secret back story

Many Catholics love the play. "I wish I'd kept a list of names of nuns I've reminded people of," said Jones, 50, who grew up as a Methodist in the small west Tennessee town of Paris, which had "one tiny Catholic church and no nuns in sight."

She has had some emotional meetings with theatergoers. "I've gotten notes handed to me and a couple of very moving hugs outside the stage door from people who were clearly abused. They look at Aloysius as the savior they never had."

Priests and nuns are often in attendance. "They find it to be a very fair, very just portrait of a time in the church," Jones said. "Priests who have felt misunderstood have, I think, found solace in this play. So do nuns who have been tortured through the years by not having done enough, when things were happening."

No cardinals have been sighted at Doubt, but the play has some notable fans with an interest in its legal issues. U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy recently saw the play and then invited Jones to spend a day observing the court in session.

Audiences seem to be divided on whether Aloysius is correct about Flynn. "Elderly Jews always think Sister Aloysius is Joe McCarthy; she's out to destroy this person with nothing but prejudice to go on," Jones said. "Young mothers always think she did the right thing."

Shanley lists his e-mail address ( in the Doubt playbill and invites playgoers to write. He told the New York Times he gets about 15 messages a day, many taking sides with either Aloysius or Flynn.

"I saw John a couple of months ago," Jones said. "For a while there, (the e-mails) were siding with Aloysius, he told me. Now they seem to be siding more with Flynn."

Interestingly, the only people who know what supposedly happened between Flynn and the boy are Shanley, Hughes and the actors who have played the priest. Doubt is fictional, but the playwright created a backstory that would give an actor insight into Flynn's character.

"That's a sort of secret that has been kept by John Shanley, the actors and myself," Hughes said. "We have never, ever shared it with Cherry or the other ladies in the play, so their doubt can be preserved."

A real trouper

Jones, who also won a Tony for her 1995 performance in The Heiress, has been with Doubt since its beginning at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club. She played Aloysius for most of the Broadway run, except for a spell when Eileen Atkins took over the role. Shanley is slated to direct the movie with Meryl Streep as Aloysius.

Jones is doing a full-blown national tour for the first time.

"It so rarely happens that the Tony Award-winning Broadway star will tour a play," Hughes said. "But Cherry really does respect the memory of trouping actresses such as Katharine Cornell or Julie Harris who took to the road."

On Broadway, Doubt was at the 900-seat Walter Kerr Theatre. One problem with taking the play on tour is the vast size of the theaters, such as the 2,500-seat Morsani Hall at TBPAC. The last nonmusical to play the Broadway series in Tampa was Master Class in 1997.

"At first it was terrifying trying to adapt to the larger houses," Jones said. "But the great thing is that as long as the audiences can hear us, they get this play, because it's all about the ideas."

Jones has performed Doubt about 650 times. "I'm still not anywhere near satisfied with my performance," she said. "But you have to embrace the imperfections and flaws, too. A polished silver performance probably wouldn't be that interesting finally."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or

Layers of 'Doubt'

John Patrick Shanley's play is aptly named on several levels.

First, there is the doubt that audience members have over whether Sister Aloysius is correct in her conviction that Father Flynn is a child abuser.

Shanley has said the play is concerned not just with the church scandal but also with a philosophical conception of doubt.

"There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered," he writes in a preface to the play. "It is the most dangerous, important and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie."

The playwright laments that doubt has been devalued in a culture "of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict." To be doubtful is to be seen as weak.

And then there is the existential doubt of Aloysius. "I think there's a moment in the play where her faith in an active, loving God and in the church is just shattered," Cherry Jones said of her character. "I think she has been struggling with it through the entire play."

John Fleming, Times performing arts critic



The play by John Patrick Shanley opens Tuesday and runs through April 29 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $26.50-$62.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045;

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 12:37:01]

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