Online since August 2002

'Doubt' a riveting morality play about possible sexual abuse by a priest

Should the Mother Superior act on strong suspicion if children are at risk?

Published June 2005

By Lucy Komisar


Written by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Doug Hughes

Walter Kerr Theatre
219 W. 48th St.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley, educated in Catholic schools in the Bronx, could hardly ignore the recent revelations of years of widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests. Clearly on the left of the political spectrum, he takes a careful, rational look at the problem and comes up with a multi-layered, riveting and subtle story with two messages.

One: If there's a possibility that children are being abused, a moral person must act, even at the risk of targeting an innocent man. But the more moral a person is, the more gnawing and prickly can be the doubt.

Two: The male Catholic hierarchy is so protective of its own, that it will invariably err on the other side of that doubt.

Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius
Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius
Photos by Joan Marcus
If you haven't guessed, the honest person wracked by doubt is a woman, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), the heroine of Shanley's morality tale.

The events take place in 1964 in a Bronx convent and rectory which share a courtyard watched over from the shadows by a female white plaster saint. Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn (Brian F. O'Bryne) have thick Bronx accents. You get the sense they are planted in this working-class parish like trees. Shanley's dialogue is perfect, with cadences he must have remembered from his childhood.

Brian F. O'Bryne as Father Flynn
Brian F. O'Bryne as Father Flynn
Sister Aloysius, the mother superior of the school, is a fierce stickler for rules. She is against making heroes of lay historical figures. But this nun is hardly naïve: she was married until her husband died in World War II. So, she knows about sex. Cherry Jones finds and expresses every nuance in her character – tough, determined, willing to take risks, but also vulnerable.

O'Bryne plays Father Flynn as a smarmy sort who tries to be one of the boys. He's the basketball coach and he holds man-to-boy talks. Director Dough Hughes has him address the audience a lot, almost whining in his demeanor. As he asserts male superiority by sitting in the mother superior's chair, he is not a sympathetic character.

The confrontation
Shanley paints Sister Aloysius' suspicions as the building blocks of a mystery. You get details that at first make no sense. Then, aha! And suddenly, there's a case that seems rock solid. But is it? She tries to trap her quarry into confession, using a confused young nun to build her case.

Shanley and Hughes hold us at the proverbial edge of our seats. (We, of course, are moral individuals who want to punish the guilty and vindicate the innocent.) I'll let the rest of the mystery remain.

When I left the theater I was sure Sister Aloysius was right; but the woman I came with insisted the opposite. From there flows the moral dilemma of the play.

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