Jones brings complex colors to Doubt
You may think that the Pulitzer-winning Doubt, like Michael Murphy’s docudrama Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, is about priestly pedophilia and the decades-long conspiracy within the Catholic Church to hush it up. True, the play is set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 and has to do with a fierce old nun butting heads — in an era and an institution in which female heads did not prevail — with a personable young priest she suspects of “interfering” with a 12-year-old boy. But the slickly written, shifting Doubt(at the Colonial Theatre through February 18) is no simple, purgative vigilante drama. As playwright John Patrick Shanley writes in the introduction to the published script, “We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict.” It is a culture in which the shift from certitude may be “the most dangerous, important, and ongoing experience of life.” Shanley subtitles his award-winning play “a parable,” and so it is — albeit one that contradicts itself in the respect that, however one embraces the transformative power of doubt, there just isn’t any that one-time American Repertory Theatre leading lady and two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones gives a performance of such complexity and raw ruthlessness that this artfully wrought 90-minute juggernaut appears better than it is. She has lost none of her old radiance, but here the shine glints off something unbendable as nails.
Jones reprises her Broadway role as Sister Aloysius, principal of the St. Nicholas grammar school and a hard-liner on all things educational and ecumenical, for whom omniscience may be an occupational hazard. And when she gets a bone, will not let go, no matter the collateral damage. Okay, Shanley wrote that character. But Jones is an Aloysius slightly stooped by osteoporosis who is yet a gawky giant striding her drab office, her eyes pinched behind pointy-cornered glasses often pointed Heavenward, her arms wrapped like some personal buffer beneath the black cape of her habit. Her voice is a jagged, low-pitched, Bronx bark, whether she’s cautioning young Sister James to keep her eighth-grade charges on a taut leash, pouncing on possible wrongdoing, or going after young Father Flynn, despite a lack of concrete evidence, with an animal courage that borders on fanaticism. This is a formidably righteous woman who just may be wrong. Certainly Chris McGarry plays Flynn as if she were, as an incredulous if chauvinistic reformer who thinks the Church should be a more welcoming place. And though there are threads of an ancient Greek detective tale woven into Doubt, don’t expect the Delphic Oracle to arrive with an absolute answer. In the end, even the play’s own oracle, in her granny bonnet and sensible boots, comes to know the difficult misgiving of the title.
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