Now playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.” I love that line. I think it has a great deal of truth to it, but it is incomplete. Someone overwhelmed by doubt cannot act, and sometimes circumstances demand action, even if the best path is not apparent.
John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt grapples with that: the morality of acting decisively in a painfully uncertain world. It’s a beautifully crafted work, perfect in its ambiguity; when the actors come to take their bows, we still don’t know for sure whether the characters have acted rightly. We don’t know what the truth is. We, too, have doubts.
Doubt is the story of Sister Aloysius, the principal of a 1960s Catholic school, who fears a priest is molesting one of the boys under her charge — even in the absence of any evidence to prove those fears. As played by Eileen Atkins, she is strong-willed, sharp-tongued and seemingly imperturbable. She can be a bully, as when she rebukes the young, idealistic Sister James (Jena Malone) for being too warm and trusting of her students, but her fierce conviction is admirable, even when it might be misplaced. Father Flynn (Ron Eldard), the object of her suspicions, repeatedly tries to intimidate Sister Aloysius, with the weight of the Catholic Church’s patriarchal power structure on his side, but she never loses her resolve.
Indeed, the confrontations between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn crackle with intensity. At issue is not just the well-being of the boy in question but the role of women in the Church; problems faced during racial integration of a white school (the boy is black); the divide (often generational) between traditional Church leadership of a community and a more familial, less authoritative approach; and the question of whether teachers should offer friendly guidance and affection to students or serve solely as dispassionate disciplinarians and educators.
Doubt deals with numerous weighty themes, and yet it never feels pedantic or contrived. Shanley deserves much of the credit — his writing is crisp and engrossing — but so, too, do Atkins and Eldard, both of whom give memorable, nuanced performances, creating specific individuals, not just vessels for Shanley’s ideas.
That being said, those ideas — and the skill and insight with which they are articulated — are what elevate Doubt above your everyday character drama. The play is intellectually challenging because though the truth remains shadowed, we must confront the morality of the characters’ actions. Agonizingly even-handed, Doubt refuses to offer simple answers or walk the audience through the murkiness to a tidy conclusion. A particularly unsettling scene involving the boy’s mother (played by Adriane Lenox with a veneer of deference over a steely core) further upends our sensibilities and assumptions.
At one point, Sister Aloysius tells Sister James that confronting evil requires one to take a step away from God. It’s a provocative thought, foreshadowing the uneasy melancholy of the play’s final scene. For Sister Aloysius is not one of Russell’s fools, and although wise people might be full of doubt, the wisest and bravest act anyway — and accept the consequences.