NEW YORK -- "Doubt" is the wonderfully apt title of John Patrick Shanley's remarkable new play about paranoia and pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Where the molesting of a child is concerned, the doubt of others is of comfort to the guilty and a torment for the falsely accused, and in Shanley's 90-minute work, the sowing of doubt is also a springboard to a provocative study of the tenuous nature of faith and the inconstancy of justice.
Anchored by a moving, riveting performance by Cherry Jones -- to whom Shanley has bequeathed her most rewarding part since her Tony-winning star turn in "The Heiress" nearly a decade ago -- "Doubt" is a reminder that there's life yet in the well-made play. A simple story told well remains a powerful tool in the hands of a playwright with something he's burning to get off his chest.
Heather Goldenhersh and Cherry Jones in the Manhattan Theatre Club play.
In "Doubt," Shanley -- who despite a trunkful of produced plays is best known for his screenplay for "Moonstruck" -- 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.
"Doubt," deftly directed by Doug Hughes for the Manhattan Theatre Club, travels, in a sense, to the roots of the crisis by taking an audience back to 1964 and a Catholic church in the Bronx, where a nun faces down the object of her suspicions. Father Flynn (Brian F. O'Byrne) is a handsome and magnetic presence in the highly regimented school run by Jones's Sister Aloysius, who -- despite the reforms of the Second Vatican Council -- clings to old ways. If Father Flynn is a fresh wind, Sister Aloysius is stale institutional air, warning teachers, for example, of the dangers of painting "a lay historical figure" like Franklin D. Roosevelt too heroically, or sternly admonishing them if she discovers any slack in the leash of their authority over their young charges.
Shanley, in other words, portrays Sister Aloysius as an advocate of the kind of rigid moral authoritarianism that elements in a changing American church seek to tone down. One of the most satisfying aspects of "Doubt" is the idea that Sister Aloysius's outer shell is as misleading as Father Flynn's, that her old-fashioned insistence on a code of behavior to match her own masks a deep well of compassion and tolerance. Jones brings an astounding transparency to the character; as Sister Aloysius's anxiety about Flynn mounts and she inches ever further out onto a limb (the church in 1964 being weighted overwhelmingly in Flynn's favor), the nun's courage and penetrating intelligence become ever more apparent. The glory of the portrayal -- and the writing -- is the careful way in which Sister Aloysius's humanity is revealed. Over the course of the play, she goes from being out of reach of our sympathy to the very embodiment of decency.
"Doubt" promulgates the notion that a woman like Sister Aloysius develops ESP for the predilections of predator-priests like the athletic and amiable Flynn, who evinces a jaunty rapport with the boys -- and takes the most vulnerable ones under his wing. Affecting a rough-hewn outer-borough accent, the Irish-born O'Byrne walks with a swagger into Sister Aloysius's office; it's clear that in this time and place, the pecking order adheres to medieval standards. The women of the St. Nicholas Church School are second-class citizens one and all, and Flynn feels he has nothing to fear from them.
Sister Aloysius's struggle is such a lonely one that you know she must be right. She articulates her grave suspicions to a naive young nun (Heather Goldenhersh), who reports seeing Flynn take a boy -- the only African American in the school -- from her eighth-grade class to the rectory. When he returns to her class the boy is unsettled and has the smell of alcohol on his breath. Even so, Goldenhersh's Sister James thinks it is the hidebound Sister Aloysius, not Flynn, who is the enemy. She refuses to believe someone so vital could be capable of something so heinous.
The play elegantly outlines the conditions allowing Flynn to operate with impunity. In a quietly explosive scene, Sister Aloysius expresses her fears to the boy's mother (the sublime Adriane Lenox), who responds with an outrageous and yet completely understandable defensiveness. Her chief concern is that her son (who, she explains, is "that way") not lose the opportunity to attend the school, or his friendship with the priest. "The man," she implores Sister Aloysius, "gives him his time."
There would be no point to setting this play in the early '60s if the dramatist did not intend for us to believe in Flynn's culpability; what he creates in "Doubt" is a kind of representative petri dish for an environment that in many parishes would have made a self-possessed believer like Sister Aloysius -- in a larger sense, the true doubter of the piece -- a lonely and frustrated voice of reason. The play's conclusion confirms the devastating folly, the fatal arrogance, of an institution unable to credit the cries of such a voice.
No weak link is discernible in Hughes's expert handling; John Lee Beatty's scenery, a stone courtyard and a principal's utilitarian office, transports us seamlessly to the parish school, and Catherine Zuber's costumes evoke the church's devotion to both grandeur and conventionality. Nothing but encomiums should be offered to the quartet of actors who make this story breathe so intensely. And an extra-big bouquet to Jones, who bathes Sister Aloysius in righteousness without ever making her seem self-righteous.
Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes. Lighting, Pat Collins; music and sound, David van Tieghem; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Jan. 30 at Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St., New York. Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.mtc-nyc.org.