Watching Studio Theatre’s well-put-together revival of “Doubt,” you may be struck by the sensation of time having stood still. John Patrick Shanley’s Tony-winning play debuted on Broadway 14 years ago, and eerily — no, tragically — the crisis at its heart has in the decade and a half since hardly budged from its prominent place in the headlines.
The drama’s subject is sexual abuse of children by priests, a scourge that continues to roil the Catholic Church. We are nearing the end of the 2010s and still dealing with the aftershocks of ghastly crimes and coverups. That underlines a dimension of the play that didn’t hit audiences with quite such blunt force in 2005: the degree to which the church would prove unable to root out all of the offenders, and would, according to news reports, even continue to protect some of the worst of them.
Shanley suggested the intractability of the anguish in his creation of Father Flynn (here played by Christian Conn), the parish priest at St. Nicholas, a fictional Bronx church and school, whose closeness to a student comes under the scrutiny of its disciplinarian principal, Sister Aloysius (Sarah Marshall). The play is built on the axis of a nagging question having to do with both belief in an unseen God and suspicion of criminality: At what point do intuition and observed patterns form a reasonable assumption?
But if “Doubt” once came across most forthrightly as a debate play blessed by Shanley’s gift for sober and elegant disputation, it now seems a drama not so much about gray areas as about the all-too-apparent truth. For it’s hard at this late date not to set aside the doubt in “Doubt” and commune entirely with the nun who’s confronted by an institution that has betrayed its charges, and her.
The shift in one’s sense of the world is a good reason for paying a visit in 2019 to “Doubt,” even if it’s a surprisingly safe choice for the launch of a new season at Studio, a company that tends toward pushing envelopes rather than opening old ones. “Doubt” — subtitled “A Parable” — is a conventional, well-made play and, as such, is a little staid for this moment in theater, when exploding the norms feels more and more called for. But then again, there has to be room for looking back at good theater, and on that score, Shanley’s rock-solid achievement would never be considered a step in the wrong direction.
On Studio’s Metheny stage, in director Matt Torney’s handsomely manicured production, Marshall and Conn go at it bracingly as the clear-eyed sister smells a magnetic rat in the vestments of the clergy. They are joined, ably, in this four-cornered discourse by Amelia Pedlow as a younger, more sensitive nun who’s far less convinced of the transgressions, and Tiffany M. Thompson as the mother of the vulnerable boy whom Sister Aloysius seeks to protect.
Among all of the attributes of Torney’s production — which include the fine mid-century costumes of Wade Laboissonniere and set by Daniel Conway — the best is the work of Marshall. The brittleness of her Sister Aloysius is so meticulously rendered that it would be as proper for an audience member to want to tiptoe around her as to clap. The extent to which Aloysius seeks to assert rectitude and common sense as essential values is beautifully embodied by Marshall, who never in her unforgiving mien asks for our sympathy; rather, she earns it. It is one of the veteran actress’s best performances, which, of course, is what is often said of what she does onstage.
Conn, too, is particularly effective, in convincing us of the depth of Father Flynn’s state of denial; in an atmosphere ever murkier, his cocky Flynn carries himself with the conviction of one who holds all the cards. Indeed, “Doubt” posits a “Handmaid’s Tale”-type hierarchy, one that compels Sister Aloysius to observe: “Here there is no man I can turn to — and men run everything.”
The racial complication that Shanley introduces — the eighth-grade victim is the first and only black student at St. Nicholas — is a device to raise the dramatic stakes, and accords the excellent Thompson a strong scene in which to plead her son’s case. But the terrible choice the dramatist foists on the mother feels heavy-handed, and that she gets only one chance to explain herself lends to a sense of a character being underserved. In 2019, the question of what happens to the unseen student, Donald, hangs distressingly in the air.
Still, Shanley manages with lyrical economy to create a twisting battle of wills, building to the kind of satisfying confrontation scene audiences crave. And with the astounding Marshall up there on the ramparts, the playwright has a hero one can confidently describe as honest-to-God.
Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Matt Torney. Set, Daniel Conway; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Dawn Chiang; sound, Victoria Deiorio. About 95 minutes. $60-$90. Through Oct. 6 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.