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"Doubt": A Theatrical Miracle Opens in Baltimore

There is a scene in John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt, which opened last night at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre, where an experienced nun and a novice nun are talking about gardening.  The elder nun is wrapping the bushes against the coming winter.  "But the frost hasn't come yet, "the novice says.  "Ah, but when the frost gets here it is already too late."  That scene is the perfect metaphor for the play itself - a frost is coming to this 1964 Catholic school, and those prepared may survive, but the chill will kill those left in the open.  Such is the subtle poetry of Shanley's brilliant play, Doubt.  And that brilliant play has been given a stunning production with a cast nearly unparalleled in quality.  Miss this living theatrical masterpiece at your own peril.

That this marvelously written play has won countless accolades, including the Tony Award, is not a surprise even ten minutes into it.  Mr. Shanley has written that rare piece - it is funny, captivating, and polarizing.  I don't believe it is possible to leave this play unscathed.  It stays with you long after the final curtain, and like a mind maze, the longer you think about it the more perplexing it is.  On the surface of it, the plot seems straight forward.  A Catholic school nun-principal suspects that a priest at her school is having an inappropriate relationship with a male student, and wants the priest out of the school and out of the priesthood.  But since she has no tangible proof, she is acting on only a gut feeling.  And like a fierce mother bear protecting her cub, the sister tries to gather support from the child's teacher and the child's mother.  When, incredibly, that fails in an unexpected way, the sister goes after the priest on her own, manipulating things until it comes to a showdown between the two.  How it plays out is for you to see.

But what is so remarkable about the play is that every time you think the answer is clear, the waters become muddy with, well, doubt.  The result is a great drama that leaves you with more questions than answers.  How can all four sides be right AND wrong?  The final, powerful moments of the play leave you on the edge of your seat and breathless after the thrill of seeing honest to goodness theatrical virtuosity.  The script, of course, with its bare bones to-the-point language is the skilled framework.  There are literally no words to spare, so exacting and tight the script is.  Add to that an almost austere direction by Doug Hughes (who also won a Tony along with the playwright and star) that perfectly mirrors the script.  Hughes has created a deft staging that carefully doles out the details in such a way that it is like a thrill ride of emotional highs and lows.  The design team also helps create the mood and theme beautifully - John Lee Beatty's carousel of scenes allows the action to flow without letting the scenery steal a moment from the cast; Catherine Zuber has created costumes that reflect a rigidity that is long-gone, and Pat Collins' lighting is moody and eerily effective, especially at the end of each scene.  (It should be noted that the lighting effectively extends into the auditorium itself, illuminating the nearly century old mural above the proscenium, creating a church-like feel for the entire space.)

Much has been made of Cherry Jones' award-winning performance in this play; usually, that kind of hype is more hyperbole than actual fact.  However, in this case all of the praise seems almost understatement.  There are simply not sufficient adjectives to describe the once-in-a-lifetime virtuosity of this actress and role.  Ms. Jones gives a bravura, tour-de-force performance, and has earned this season's only legitimate standing ovation.  Her meticulous, detailed performance is so in the moment and genuine, one would never guess she has been playing this role off and on for the past two years.  Her natural loveliness is all but hidden behind a severe habit, pale makeup and horn-rimmed glasses.  You are not watching an actress play a part, she IS Sister Aloysius.  From her constant rearranging of items on her desk to a near desperate clinging to her beloved rules and regulations, her ice cold demeanor is matched only in extremes by her ferocious righteous indignation.  Woe to anyone who gets in her way - you are either black or white, with absolutely no shade of grey allowed. 

The chance to merely be in the presence of such great acting must be a thrill for the supporting cast, if not the most daunting of their careers.  Well, all three fine actors not only hold their own onstage with Ms. Jones, but frequently rise to her level.  In a role that lasts maybe 12 minutes, Caroline Stefanie Clay generates theatrical magic of her own.  In that short time span, she creates an amazingly full character - strong, determined and equally protective of her child, who is unwittingly in the middle of a growing crisis.  As the details of this woman's family life are revealed, the lines between right and wrong are blurred.  The audible gasps of the audience and tangible discomfort of the audience when she proclaims that she doesn't care if Father Flynn is seducing her son is matched only by the stunned silence that greets her tearful explanation.  Sometimes, the lesser of two evils being acceptable is beyond our ability to comprehend unless we live it.  In those brief moments, the extremely talented Ms. Clay helps us to live through the hell that is her family's life.

In the difficult position of spending much of her time onstage doing battle with Sister Aloysius, Lisa Joyce as Sister James, the boy's teacher, matches Ms. Jones cold austerity with equal amounts of emotion.  It is particularly heartbreaking to watch and feel the joy of this young teacher get sucked right out of her in the matter of minutes ("Sister has robbed me of the joy of teaching!" she laments later in the play).  And the slow realization that she has been made a pawn in the elder's vendetta against the priest is both gratifying and enraging - too little too late you might argue, but at the cost of a sweet innocence.  Of course, her character becomes the embodiment of the guilty shame we all must feel when we act on a seed planted in our minds rather than actual facts - sometimes a mere suggestion can set off a dangerous witch hunt.  Like her co-stars, Ms. Joyce commands the stage when needed and supports the star with an equally star-making performance.

 Chris McGarry as Father Flynn is perfection.  His handsome, but not too handsome looks, coupled with a vibrant charisma lures you into his capable hands.  He is at once the knowledgeable, comfortable, guiding presence you look for in matters of spiritual guidance.  And yet, with the idea in your head that he might just be a predator, you see everything he does as potentially calculated and dishonest - in short, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  To be able to play this simultaneous duality at the level at which Mr. McGarry does will be the problem of all future actors to play the role.  It is hard to imagine a better actor for the role.  And when he goes yell for yell, blow for blow up against Sister Aloysius, the fireworks are spectacular.  When it all dies down, you, too, are left with doubt.  All signs lead you to believe one thing.  But are the signs right?

It is interesting, in this day and age, to look at this issue and actually see the accused's side of things rather than automatically assume the accuser is right.  The complexity of the situation and the consequences of inaction make it ripe for taking sides.  And regardless of the actuality, the two parties are irreparably changed.  But in one rare instance, this thought-provoking masterpiece of theatre asks you to ponder what if you are wrong.  What if you have even the smallest of doubts?

People often speak of performances they wish they had seen - Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, Mary Martin in The Sound of Music, etc.  Future generations will be saying the same of Cherry Jones' incomparable portrayal of Sister Aloysius in Doubt.  We are truly blessed with the chance of a lifetime, not only to see history in the making, but to see it with an equally masterful cast.  Baltimore, if you are truly serious about theatre, you owe it to yourself to get to the Hippodrome box office and snatch up any remaining tickets.  You are really missing an opportunity to see the best play of the last several seasons.

 

PHOTOS: TOP to BOTTOM:  Cherry Jones and Chris McGarry; Lisa Joyce and Cherry Jones; Cherry JonesCherry Jones and Caroline Stefanie Clay; Lisa Joyce; Chris McGarry.  All photos by Craig Schwartz.

 


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