The Playwright and the Seeds of 'Doubt'

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 11, 2007


John Patrick Shanley has won a lot of big writing prizes -- the Oscar, the Tony, the Pulitzer. But lately the acclaim is so universal that he's even getting impressive editorials.

"Shanley's play is short in duration but long on hard truths," gushed the Boston Globe last month.

The work in question was the widely lauded "Doubt," and by then the Globe was merely jumping on the bandwagon.

"Doubt" debuted off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, rapidly moved to Broadway in 2005, then won the Pulitzer and four major Tony Awards, including best play.

Cherry Jones is reprising her Tony-winning performance as Sister Aloysius in the current tour -- another rare measure of success for a drama -- that arrives Tuesday at the National Theatre. And next year "Doubt" goes Hollywood, with Shanley directing and Meryl Streep to star.

It's a theatrical juggernaut but hardly a breakthrough. Shanley made it big with his Oscar-winning screenplay for "Moonstruck" in 1987, famously thanking "everyone who ever punched or kissed me in my life, and everybody who I ever punched or kissed." Yet after Shanley's more than two dozen plays over three decades, the sly, crowd-pleasing "Doubt" is easily his biggest stage success. And he can't say why.

"You write these things, and you never know," Shanley says over cupcakes in a kids' bookstore. (The place is just down the street from where he lives in downtown Manhattan, and the toddler-driven ambiance confers upon the playwright an unpretentious charm.)

Certainly "Doubt" -- which traces the concerns of a nun who suspects a priest of molesting a student -- could be torn from the headlines. In part, the Globe editorial was an acknowledgment of the abuse scandals that ran through the Catholic Church in recent years.

"I thought about the priests, that question," says Shanley, recalling the genesis of the play, which is set in 1964. "But it's too on-the-nose. That's just an issue play, and I don't really want to write an issue play."

And yet the story was inspired in no small measure by a different unrelenting headline: the weapons-of-mass-destruction muddle.

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