John Patrick Shanley

Drama Review – Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise.

John Patrick Shanley March 2005

            I have no doubt, that Doubt is one of the best written plays I’ve ever read. John Patrick Shanley crafted a masterpiece without clearly depicting the main story sparks. The ending left me confused and troubled. It reflected the play’s title perfectly. I’ve seen this play performed and read it once before. I found it so powerful that I couldn’t resist delving into it again.

Doubt served as the theme of Fr. Flynn’s opening monolog.  I liked the way the playwright established the setting and theme of the play at the very beginning. I still mentally harken back to the beginning of Hamlet whenever I read a play. Lines and lines of dialog where characters prattled on about how dark the night and that they’re standing in front of a castle really seared into my memory. (I do take solace in the fact that even the Bard could’ve improved as a writer.) Shanley avoided this error. The fourth line in the play read: “Last year President Kennedy was assassinated.” (Page 5) What an exceptional way to quickly establish the time frame.

The play contained an outstanding protagonist and antagonist, but with a twist. Shanley drew them so well that I’m not sure which role each main character played. Sister Aloysius served as a hardline reactionary to the changes occurring in the Church. She opposed the use of the song “Frosty the Snowman” in the Christmas show. It “espouses a pagan belief in magic”, she asseverated. (Page 29) I thought it clever how she informed Sister James not to focus so much on teaching history. Yet, in the play Sister Aloysius referred to Socrates (Page 12) and Sparta (Page 36). She did so while, in essence, telling Sister James how to do her job. I found her choice of examples intriguing. Wasn’t Jesus a teacher, too?

Fr. Flynn served as her opposite. He supported a friendlier, more accessible clergy. He recommended adding secular tunes to the Christmas pageant. He coached the boys’ basketball team. After practice he invited them to the rectory. The priest even paid special attention to the lone African-American child at the school, Donald Muller. The latter ignited the main story spark.

Sister Aloysius suspected that the priest had an inappropriate relationship with the boy. There being no Chris Hansens at St. Nicholas school, she opted to investigate the matter herself. The drama unfolded around her efforts to confirm her (unfounded) allegations. Fr. Flynn always responded with a reasonable (sounding) explanation for all her suspicions.

To further enhance the story, the priest admitted being a fabulist to Sister James. Again, he followed this revelation with a reasonable (sounding) explanation. He claimed making up stories for his sermons “in the tradition of the parable.” (Page 38) Why?

What actually happens in life is beyond interpretation. The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion. (Page 39)

The playwright did an exceptional job keeping me engaged. The more I read, the more I had doubts about both characters’ behavior. It took special talent to continue building this tension through the entire play; accomplishing this while relating few verifiable facts took extraordinary skill.

I have little doubt that the ending won’t satisfy some readers. I would remind them of Shanley’s own words:

You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.

To absorb the essence of these words, read Doubt.  

Theater Review – Doubt by John Patrick Shanley at Burlington County Footlighters

Due to the troubling subject matter of this play, I had doubts I’d enjoy it. The presentation by the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters this fall, put my doubts to rest. They performed a somber reading of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Doubt.

Have I overdone the whole “doubt” thing, yet? FULL DISCLOSURE: if you think so, you shouldn’t keep reading this review.

When I entered the theater I started to genuflect. The altar, stained glass and podium gave the true ambiance of a church. The addition of the red light above the latter showed fantastic attention to detail on the part of the set designer (Jim Frazier). When Father Flynn (Kevin Walters) approached the podium and delivered his sermon on “doubt” I suspected I was not in the presence of holiness…or was I?

The playbill read that Mr. Walters “regards Doubt as one of the finest plays ever written.” Father Flynn is certainly the most challenging dramatic role I’ve encountered. Theatergoers need to view him as someone unjustly accused of a heinous action. They also need to think him an unrepentant pedophile. Not an easy character for an actor to play. It requires him to walk a fine line in order to be convincing on both counts. Through his subtle vocal inflections Mr. Walters did so splendidly. At the end of the performance I wanted to have a beer with him. At the same time I would’ve been a little leery of letting him watch my kids. Bravo on such a phenomenal acting performance.

I enjoyed watching Donne Petito bring Sister Aloysius Beauvier’s character to life. This performer conveyed the essence of an ultra-conservative, inflexible and doctrinaire ideologue. (I should point out that the playwright set this drama in 1964 at a Bronx Catholic grammar school. The action didn’t take place in Washington, D. C. or the hustings somewhere south of New England.) The dark tone of Ms. Petito’s voice led me to doubt the credibility of Sister Aloysius’ accusations. Unfortunately, it also reminded me of a nun I met while attending a Catholic high school. That made her rendition much more believable to me.

Linda Hansen played an exceptional contrast in her role as Sister James. While timid at first, the character gradually transitioned into a hybrid of compassion and rationality. Ms. Hansen made her character’s metamorphosis very convincing. I thought her facial expressions really conveyed the true essence of “doubt”. I’m sure my face displayed a similar appearance throughout and after the performance.

In her role as Mrs. Muller, Carla Ezell did a fantastic job bringing to light that uncomfortable streak of gray that lies between black and white. Of all the characters in the play, Mrs. Muller came across as the most complex. When Sr. Aloysius shared her belief Fr. Flynn molested her son, Mrs. Muller decided to keep him in the school. This would allow her son the opportunity to get into a good college. She also implied he was homosexual, intimating he would’ve enjoyed it anyway. In addition, “it’s only until June” when he’d graduate and go on to high school. Yeah, that’s about as complex a character any playwright could create.

I should add that the Shanley made the Muellers African-American. That added another dimension of intricacy to the play. Should Mrs. Muller have sacrificed her son’s opportunity to get a good education over a nun’s uncorroborated suspicion that a priest abused her child? Not as obvious a choice to make as it seemed on the surface.

I applaud Burlington County Footlighters for presenting a play with such intricacy and controversial subject matter. While a disturbing subject, the performers delivered a rendition that did true credit to the essence of this drama. On that, there can be no doubt.