If I could, I’d leave a bottle on the lip of Olney’s stage for Brigid Cleary, whose turn as the straight-backed and suspicious Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is definitely Guinness-worthy. But the show doesn’t have an intermission, and anyway it’s Olney, so I’m sure there’s some kind of zoning thing.
Still: Cleary does great, unselfconscious work here, as the principal of a Bronx Catholic School in 1964 who despairs over the way the world is changing. When affronted—and she spends much of the play’s running time affronted, by everything from the specter of child molestation to ballpoint pens—her Sister Aloysius squawks and brays like Edith Prickley. But even during those moments, Cleary isn’t doing caricature. Watch how, while criticizing a young nun (Patricia Hurley) for “performing” before her class instead of teaching it, Cleary is careful to show us that Sister Aloysius’ outrage comes from a specific place, and—tellingly—that it needs a focus.
Cue the young and handsome Father Flynn, whom Sister A. considers the embodiment of Vatican II. As portrayed by James Denvil, Flynn’s all smile and smarm and privilege. His sermons are outsize performances that affect a “hey, we’re just tawkin’ here, ain’t we” folksiness. You can kinda see why the guy gets her wimple in a bunch.
As the young teacher caught up in the battle between Sister Aloysius and Flynn, Patricia Hurley projects a believable vulnerability. As written, however, the character’s transition from quavering subservience to articulate independence seems awfully rapid.
The show’s certainly great to look at; James Wolk’s design captures both stained-glass transcendence and stone-gray gloom, and scenes transition with brisk, seamless ease.
It’s Deidre LaWan Starnes’ brief but searing performance as a student’s mother, however, that adds an intriguing Z axis to the proceedings in a way that’s too good to spoil. The did-he-or-didn’t-he question that’s putatively at the heart of the play is one you’ll probably settle before you get out of the Olney parking lot. But the darker, more abstract question raised by Starnes’ character? That’s the one you’ll wake up with the next day.