A 'Doubt' to Believe In: Cherry Jones at the National

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007

The sturdy "Doubt" could be fueled by almost any accomplished actor, but it seems to run most efficiently on a premium-grade additive called Cherry Jones.

In New York, Jones originated the part of Sister Aloysius, the Bronx Catholic school principal who harbors dark suspicions about a popular priest and the interest he takes in one of his male students. She rightly received a Tony for the performance -- playwright John Patrick Shanley also won a Tony, and a Pulitzer, to boot -- and the production had one of the longer Broadway runs in recent years for a straight play.

That's usually it for a superb stage actress and a great role. (Meryl Streep has -- what a surprise -- been announced for the movie version.) Jones, however, has taken the step -- extremely rare these days -- of re-upping with the play for the road, a circumstance that's both highly fortunate for theatergoers and revelatory about Shanley's drama. Now more than ever, "Doubt" looks like a star vehicle that is shaped to the supple contours of a single actress.

What becomes clear in a visit to this touring "Doubt," now at the National Theatre for two weeks, is how essential it is that an audience be won over by Sister Aloysius, that it believe unequivocally in her goodness. Her facade can't fool us: In the frumpy eyeglasses and conservative habit of a nun in a teaching order in 1964, she looks grim, forbidding. And her resistance to change at St. Nicholas Church School -- why, the very idea of trying to make a history lesson fun! -- is meant to stamp her as crankily, even risibly, old school. But we must see through the intimidating crust and fall in love, because she, in a sense, is us. Cassandra-like, she intuits what four decades later we know: that there's an insidious, child-abusing rot in the foundations of the church, spread by smiling, clean-cut priests and a hierarchy that's deaf and, maybe worse, indifferent to the warning signs.

Jones's wonderful contribution is warmth. Although Shanley gives us clues to Sister Aloysius's interior life (she entered the order after being widowed by World War II), it is the actress who gives us a whole person. The nun's vulnerability is also her most admirable quality: her passion for justice. The duality is conveyed in the anguished eyes that stare out of Jones's "Revenge of the Nerds" glasses. And so the rage that Sister Aloysius feels, as her conviction deepens that jocular, magnetic Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) has corrupted a 12-year-old boy, easily becomes our rage, too.

The playwright, however, offers some sly curveballs and, as a result, "Doubt" is dogged as much by the question of fallibility as by the intimation of pedophilia: Is it possible Sister Aloysius's suspicions arise from jealousy of a priest who has the kid-friendly skills she lacks? Could it be that she is simply reading the signs all wrong?

The crux of the play is in the idea of trusting your gut, in believing in your personal lie detector no matter what. In this regard, "Doubt" is a whistle-blower play. Whether or not Father Flynn is guilty of Sister Aloysius's accusations -- and she makes them known to him in a terrific confrontation scene -- we know that her underlying instinct is the right one.

"Doubt" doesn't shilly-shally much. In a crisp 90 minutes, it lays out the steps Sister Aloysius takes in a campaign to root out Father Flynn. She is virtually alone in her crusade, assisted only reluctantly by a younger nun (Lisa Joyce) who resents the principal's rigid adherence to tradition and sees the priest as much more her fellow traveler.

And Sister Aloysius can't even count on the family of the boy she believes has been molested. The principal suspects that Father Flynn targets him in part because, as the only African American student in the school, the child is lonely and desperate for companionship. Still, in yet another well-played encounter, the mother (Caroline Stefanie Clay) explains with a poignant vehemence, precisely and convincingly, why she's in no position to back the nun.

Director Doug Hughes has assembled a strong touring version of the play, although the actors still seemed to be adjusting to the National's acoustics on opening night; too many lines were getting swallowed. Even so, Joyce and Clay are pleasing inheritors of their roles.

And McGarry makes for an especially worthy adversary. He is a more persuasively outer-borough type than the figure conjured in the original production by Brian F. O'Byrne. And although he has the burden of the play's least compelling scenes -- a pair of sermons he delivers directly to us -- McGarry manages at other times to provide the impression of a good guy unfairly persecuted.

We watch him closely for the telltale evidence that will give him away, some tiny acknowledgment that would confirm Sister Aloysius's belief. The effort is in vain -- unless you imagine you've come up with something. In the end, it seems, it's all a matter of what feeling you're left with in your own gut.

Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Pat Collins; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem. About 90 minutes. Through March 25 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Call 800-447-7400 or visit

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