When I started blogging, I vowed I would never apologize for any delays in posting, since there’s no end to that sort of thing. Every evening I’m out is another event to discuss and another delay in getting to my computer (and I’ve been out about half the nights since my return from Germany). And it’s not as if I’m talking about previews of Cats; most of what I go to either has a limited run or is a one-off, so by the time my vast audience hears my recommendations the performances have already drifted over to the dreamland memory book where no-longer live performances live. But when I told an actor friend I was going to see Cherry Jones in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt last Friday, he told me he wanted to hear my thoughts without waiting the two months it takes me to post in my blog. So like Beadle Bamford I’m glad as always to oblige my friends and neighbors: Arby, this is for you. (There are probably spoilers in here, but that’s what you get.)
I remember Cherry Jones from ART days, when I lived in Boston and she had such roles as Regina (the maid) in Ghosts and the Courtesan in Boys from Syracuse. Years later it occurred to me that if I still had vivid memories of Regina and the Courtesan when the rest of the show had mostly slipped away then the actress was probably pretty special, so I made my plans to see Doubt. What the play brought back to me, though, was not so much my days in Boston as my days in a Catholic school when the old style was giving way under the social pressures of the 1960s/70s and the institutional pressures of Vatican II. I had to endure my share of nutjob nuns (Sister Anna Maria, I’m talking to you, bitch) and groovy priests. For much of its running time, Doubt is more about conflicting philosophies of teaching (and power) than about what is usually given as its subject, which is a nun accusing a priest of molesting an altar boy. Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) is an old-school strict nun who accuses the unconventional but charming Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) of molesting a 12-year-old boy (the school’s “only Negro student” and, it turns out, probably one of their gay ones) based on very thin evidence she prompts out of the naïve Sister James (Lisa Joyce, who reminded me exactly of the idealistic young nuns of the time). The student never appears but Sr. Aloysius has a talk with his mother (Adriane Lenox). Four excellent actors, a first-rate production, and in ninety nonstop minutes a world created and subverted – I’m not sure you can ask for more, but I still had a few reservations about the play itself, specifically about the role (not the performance) of Sister Aloysius.
I would have preferred it if the priest’s guilt had been a little more ambiguous, so that the viewer was left (as in The Turn of the Screw) to ponder whether we really had a child-molesting man or a vindictive, sexually troubled woman. And Shanley walks that tightrope right up to the end, when Sr. Aloysius traps Fr Flynn with a lie (claiming she’s contacted a nun at his former parish who said he had “inappropriate contact” with altar boys there too). He leaves, but this is only a partial victory for her since he is moved to another parish where presumably he can fool a new set of people. Although the priest is genuinely warm-hearted and caring, we’re set up (given the recent scandals over the Catholic Church’s disgraceful, though typical of the time, protection of child molesters) to see him as The Bad Guy (though there are hints, appropriate for the time of the play but shocking these days, that even if the priest has “inappropriate contact” with the boy it might not be a completely bad thing). And it sets up Sister Aloysius, who could legitimately be seen as a narrow, unimaginative woman threatened by nonconformity (she considers art and music a waste of time and she seems particularly troubled by the length of the priest’s fingernails – her last line to him is an order to cut his nails; the audience greeted this exit zinger with much applause the night I was there) as a gruff but loveable Protector of the Innocent. The comedy in the play, and there are a lot of funny lines, also serves to smooth out her rougher old-school edges. When Sister James says to her about her trap for the priest “I can’t believe you lied” the audience chuckled again, as if Aloysius had been quite the scamp, though in fact it is genuinely shocking for such a by-the-book nun to break the rules (and to put it in Catholic terms, to commit such a sin) and it raises the question of how far she would have gone to destroy this priest. Suppose he had called her bluff? But the clear implication is that he was guilty and she was right all along. And her very last lines express her intense inner doubts, a revelation which undercuts the possibility that she is an Inspector Javert intent on destroying those who rebel against her rules.
Shanley had a nice note in the program (“This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools, and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?”) but even without joining the simple-minded mockery of nuns he could have made a strong drama stronger by keeping Sister Aloysius a more troubling figure. She is clearly a woman of forceful character and great power and it’s sentimental to assume that great power always comes with great wisdom and great kindness. And it’s all too easy to do, especially when talking about women (much is made of the patriarchal structure of the Church and again, we’re predisposed to admire a lone woman fighting for justice against clueless or evil men). It’s especially easy to do when one is no longer directly subject to their power and can look back with a nostalgic glow. Sister Aloysius clearly has power and knows how to use it to get what she wants; as so often happens, the real power does not lie with the official hierarchy. (Look at any Latin family and tell me who really knows what’s going on and who really has power.)
At one key moment in their final confrontation Father Flynn is screaming at Sister Aloysius that she is insubordinate and is violating the Church’s rules; she is crouched down in her chair under this onslaught; a lesser actress than Jones would probably have had her boldly standing up to him. But the real meaning of the scene is the opposite of what we see, since under stress both are behaving completely out of character, and the actors express this: Father Flynn has abandoned his unconventional ways, his ministry of compassion, and his usual warm and witty (even seductive) manner and is resorting to brute volume and the rules of the institution. Sister Aloysius, far from submitting, is merely protecting herself as from a vast storm and is more determined than ever to destroy the priest. This is probably the scene that will stay with me even as the rest of the play drifts off.