People who are utterly certain are vulnerable to a brand of foolishness that people who maintain a level of doubt are not – John Patrick Shanley
The abuse of thousands of children at the hands of priests has all the ingredients for gripping drama so it is perhaps no surprise that playwrights have used the revelations of decades of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church as material. For John Patrick Shanley, there is an added element of inspiration: a priest molested a relative of his in Monroe, N.Y. When the parents of the child went to church officials, they were assured that appropriate steps would be taken. The priest was promoted.
His aptly named Pulitzer Prize, Tony, Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Lucille Lortel award winning play ”Doubt” deals passionately and, yes, even amusingly with a subject that’s been treated countless times in articles and documentaries, in made-for-television specials and feature films. That the topic retains the ability to rub nerves raw suggests that as a society we are still learning to grapple with its tragic impact, and also that many people both in and out of the faith remain deeply confused by the church’s seeming complicity in a number of the cases that have come to light.
In the play, a nun in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 suspects a popular priest of inappropriate behaviour with a student. Armed with nothing more than a resolute belief in her suspicion and a few circumstantial details, she instigates a relentless campaign to remove the priest, enlisting the help of a subordinate nun and the child’s tormented mother. The simple, yet ever-shifting plot leaves all four characters and the audience wondering whether they were justified in their thoughts, motives and actions.
The play unfolds mostly as a series of dialogues, punctuated by two monologues – sermons delivered by Father Flynn to his congregation on the subjects of doubt and gossip. Just how self-revealing and even self-incriminating those sermons are is open to question. But it’s true that Father Flynn, in keeping with his newfangled ideas about giving the church "a more familiar face," tends to personalize everything.
Which is exactly what annoys Sister Aloysius, who believes priests and nuns should be coolly vigilant, not warmly engaged. As she shares her opinions with Sister James, a young teacher of still uncrushed ideals and enthusiasm, her pronouncements have the pithy starch of attitudes and beliefs formed over long years: "Satisfaction is a vice"; "Innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil"; "When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service."
Even as "Doubt" holds your conscious attention as an intelligently measured debate play, it sends off stealth charges that go deeper emotionally. And when Sister Aloysius, in response to Sister James’s complaints that she hasn’t been sleeping well, says, "Maybe we’re not supposed to sleep well," the softly spoken words unsettle in ways that full-voiced cries of anguish seldom do.
Due to the success of the play, Miramax Films together with Scott Rudin produced a critically acclaimed film adaptation of the play (the film is also named ‘Doubt’) in 2008. The film stars Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Amy Adams as Sister James and Viola Davis as Mrs. Muller. The film is dedicated to Sister Margaret McEntee, a Sister of Charity nun who was Shanley’s first-grade teacher and who served as a technical adviser for the movie. She is the real-life Sister James.
Venue: Sherbrooke Theatre Company, Doncaster Playhouse, 679 Doncaster Rd, Doncaster
Season: July – August 2010