Nun sense

Cherry Jones has no doubt about Doubt
By SALLY CRAGIN  |  January 23, 2007

Cherry Jones
Theatergoers who attended American Repertory Theatre in the 1980s saw an exquisitely versatile actor, Cherry Jones. In the 1990s, New York audiences learned about this valuable commodity for themselves. Now Jones, called “an American actress for the ages” by the Chicago Tribune, returns to Boston in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Doubt, a play set at a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 where a strong-minded nun tries to root out possible priestly misbehavior.

When Doubt opened Off Broadway in 2004, the play coincided with the emergence of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, and the themes still resonate. The story revolves around school principal Sister Aloysius’s suspicion regarding Father Flynn, who may have behaved improperly with the school’s first African-American student. But since she lacks incontrovertible proof, her conviction is called into question. Jones’s performance as Sister Aloysius earned her a second Tony in 2005 (the first was for The Heiress), and she’s been on tour with the show since September.

She insists she’s “completely tongue-tied” when she talks about the play. “I haven't seen it; I've only read it,” she declares before embarking on an eloquent explanation of its themes. “One of the things John [Patrick Shanley] did that was so clever was to make Sister Aloysius a widow. She has been married, so she understands human sexuality, so it’s not something she shies away from. That said, the play isn’t about pedophilia; it’s about how we proceed. It’s not how she judges, it’s how the audience judges. We set up a situation and the audience has to decide for themselves. Within 10 minutes of the play, the play belongs to them.”

Then there’s the detail in her characterization. “In 1964, a 55-year-old woman moved more like a 75-year-old woman, and I gave her osteoporosis as well. I wanted a contrast with this fierce will and this frail shell.”

Rarely does an original star of a Broadway hit go on national tour, but Jones is committed to nine months on the road. “Honestly, it was people like Julie Harris and the Lunts and Katharine Cornell, and the tradition of the theater says you gotta tour.” She adds that reaching that wider national audience has some built-in challenges — and not just playing to 2800-seat houses. The reaction to Doubt has ranged from passion to paranoia, particularly in communities that have had their own clergy sex-abuse scandals. And that topic, she cautions, is “just the jumping-off point — that’s not what the play is about. This is a play that Catholics love, and the nuns and priests [who have attended] love the play. The situation is handled so fairly — it’s about the doubt.”

Doubt | Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St, Boston | February 6-18 | $37.50-$87.50 | 617.931.ARTS

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