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THEATER REVIEW

`Doubt' dwarfed and yet still sure

September 29, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

As the principal of the St. Nicholas School, Sister Aloysius is all too aware of how small misdeeds lay the foundation for big ones. Students caught writing with ballpoints instead of fountain pens need to be firmly reprimanded. "Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow," she explains, with the conviction of a general who knows that dithering on the battlefield can only lead to abject defeat.

Hesitation and uncertainty are weaknesses for this nun, who has become something of a theatrical icon ever since Cherry Jones donned a Sisters of Charity habit and bonnet two years ago in John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt." Reprising the role that won her virtually every stage award there is to win, she continues on her holy rampage, rooting out suspected malfeasance with a fearsome moral clarity that ultimately must confront the elusive nature of truth.

By now you have probably heard a good deal about Shanley's play, one of the most feted Broadway dramas in recent memory. Don't let the hype inflate your expectations. "Doubt" is a modest play that expands in the mind to immodest proportions when it is encountered in a calm spirit of inquiry. The small scale of the work isn't a perfect fit with the cavernous, sound-swallowing Ahmanson Theatre, but the production, under the Tony-winning direction of Doug Hughes, hasn't lost its power to provoke intense discussion on the drive home.

There's still something radiant in this parable, like the glow of a nimbus brightening up an ambiguous sky. The longer you stare, the more you enter an enlightened state of ignorance. Experiencing the play once again, I was struck by how "Doubt," though set in 1964, may be the most probing post-9/11 drama to date.

It's not simply Father Flynn's opening sermon in which he recalls to his congregation last year's assassination of President Kennedy and the ensuing "profound disorientation" that bound the country together. It's in the central dilemma posed by the play: how to prosecute potential evil without losing your soul in the process.

Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) of committing an unpardonable sin with Donald Muller, the school's first African American student. She is determined to expose him after Sister James, a fledgling nun played by Lisa Joyce with a ludicrous accent, reports that the boy came back to her classroom after a private meeting with the priest smelling of altar wine and behaving strangely. Lacking hard evidence, Sister Aloysius trusts her martinet-like instincts to guide her.

An ardent basketball coach and teacher, Father Flynn has appointed himself Donald's protector. Less rigid in his conduct than his principal and far more humanly accessible, he tries to bridge the gap between the clergy and laity by proposing such things as the introduction of secular carols in the annual Christmas pageant.

For a nun who believes that " 'Frosty the Snowman' espouses a pagan belief in magic," this is as unsettling as some of the warm and fuzzy edicts coming down from Vatican II. Watching the two square off against each other is like seeing the old and new church at loggerheads.

As played by McGarry with a thick Bronx accent and craggy masculinity, Father Flynn may not be your standard-issue man of the cloth (I've never seen a priest like him), but he definitely has charismatic appeal. And any fear that he won't be able to hold his own onstage with Jones is quickly put to rest. His characterization may be blunter than that of Brian F. O'Byrne, who originated the role, but the balance of power isn't noticeably thrown off by his casting.

My memory of Jones' performance is so treasured that I was nervous to experience it again. How could it live up to my burnished recollection?

At first she seemed to have trouble finding her bearings in the theater's inhospitably vast space. Interrogating Sister James, she riffled through her lines in the same distracted manner in which she tossed around student files.

But it didn't take her long to lock in. As the drama moved with laser-like swiftness toward its crisis, Jones recaptured the magic. The crispness of her comedic delivery was back. She brought the house down with laughter by emphatically pronouncing the remark "Nuns fall, you know" as though it were a general rule.

What's most extraordinary about her portrait, however, is the way she provides glimpses of the passionate goodness fueling her fanatical quest. In a conference with Donald's mother (Tony winner Adriane Lenox, continuing to make the most of a very challenging scene), Jones' Sister Aloysius hears how the boy's father beat him for allegedly drinking that altar wine and erupts in a heart-rendingly stifled cry, "He shouldn't do that."

And though this is a nun to give Catholic schoolkids nightmares for life, her cautionary words to Sister James -- "innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil" -- reverberate with a guardian's profound sense of responsibility to those in her charge.

Unspeakable evil, unspeakable error -- the line, Shanley suggests, may not be as clear as we'd like to believe. In the tradition of great drama, he asks us to ponder the motives and aftermaths of actions that plunge us only deeper into a collective conundrum.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

*

`Doubt'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. today, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 29

Price: $20 to $80

Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Chris McGarry...Father Flynn

Cherry Jones...Sister Aloysius

Lisa Joyce...Sister James

Adriane Lenox...Mrs. Muller

By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Pat Collins. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Production stage manager Charles Means.

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