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Doubt: A Parable

A person and person in a black robe

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Liev Schreiber, Amy Ryan (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Doubt: A Parable

By Julia Polinsky


John Patrick Shanley's Doubt: A Parable has received a handsome new mounting at the Roundabout's newly re-named Todd Haimes theater.

Directed for maximum impact by Scott Ellis, this first Broadway revival of arguably Shanley's most famous play doesn't flinch from tough issues: sexual wrongdoing within the priesthood; entrenched gender inequality within the Catholic church; intolerance; and, yes, faith and doubt.

Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan), the principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, is old-school, inflexible, intolerant. She is a stickler for the rules, including submitting to the rigid hierarchy of the Church - there's a procedure for everything, progressing through priest to monsignor to bishop, etc.

Sister Aloysius has no use for art, music, dancing, (wastes of time), or Sister James (Zoe Kazan), a teacher who wants warm fuzzies in the classroom (too lax). Nor "Frosty the Snowman" in the Christmas pageant (too secular, verging on Satanic). Or even the ballpoint pen (too easy).

Especially not for Sister Aloysius: the popular priest who opens the play with a sermon on doubt and how it can bring a community together.

That priest, who teaches basketball as much as catechism, is Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber). He coaches. He inspires. He manages the altar boys. His students like him. It's almost inevitable that Sister Aloyisius would suspect him of behaving inappropriately with an altar boy, Donald (also the first Black child in the school).

A person in a black suit and black robe standing next to a person in a black suit

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Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, Liev Schreiber (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sister Aloysius, Sister James, and Father Flynn have a conversation about the incident in which Donald had alcohol on his breath after visiting Father Flynn in the rectory. Flynn says the boy was caught drinking altar wine. Sister James is relieved at the relatively benign outcome, but Sister Aloysius is adamant that Flynn gave him the wine as part of a seduction. She demands the boy be taken off the altar boys and says that she will stop at nothing remove Father Flynn from the school.

Sister Aloysius, ignoring the rigid hierarchy of the Church, goes so far outside the rules as to confront the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) about the incident. Talk about moral ambiguity: Mrs. Muller's life experiences as a Black woman lead her to see moral certainty as irrelevant to just getting through life. "You accept what you gotta accept and you work with it..." She only wants her son to finish the school year. "It's just until June," she says, after implying that her son is himself gay.

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Amy Ryan, Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sister Aloysius refuses to let the mother's tolerance interfere with her own determination to get rid of Father Flynn. She does succeed, but at what price? Stopping at nothing, we learn, includes lying.

In the final scene of Doubt, Sister Aloysius, this prickly pillar of righteous morality, confesses to Sister James that she lied to and manipulated Father Flynn so as get him to resign from the school. She is comfortable with doing wrong, she says, when it moves you away from God but in his service. And yet, her last words are, "I have such doubt..."

Shanley leaves up to the audience what they want to take away from the play - at no point is there an explicit confession from Father Flynn,. It is, of course, possible to think that he realized that it was better to cut and run than to battle this implacable, indomitable principal. Or to believe that he did indeed seduce the boy. Do you believe? Or do you doubt?

The performances from Ryan and Schreiber also make for ambiguity. Their interactions sometimes seem paced for television sitcom timing, rather than taking moments of reflection demanded by the terrible accusation. Ryan's Sister Aloysius is funny, not terrifying, and her confrontation with Father Flynn feels like repartee rather than reprimand. Schreiber himself gives a pared-down, almost subdued performance.

Conversation in Doubt is thick with comic timing, whether between the two Sisters, or them and Father Flynn. A notable exception: the magnificent performance of Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who gets a richly deserved round of applause after her brief moments on stage, when she cuts the moral high ground out from under Sister Aloysius.

David Rockwell's terrific set is moral ambiguity made visible, using light and darkness (lighting by Kenneth Posner), indoor and outdoor space, stone and wood, stained glass windows and a garden. The interplay of opposites is visible everywhere, including the richness of the priest's vestments compared to the unrelieved, old-fashioned black of the Sisters of Charity garb (costumes by Linda Cho).

Doubt will most likely leave you wondering. Did he do it? Is it right to do wrong in order to do good? What do you believe?


Are you sure?


Doubt: A Parable

Roundabout Theatre Company

Todd Haimes Theatre

227 W 42nd St ,New York, NY

Through April 21