Nun of Your Business: Sister Aloysius counsels a parent prospect.
Nun of Your Business: Sister Aloysius counsels a parent prospect.

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Doubt polarizes people—supposedly. Whether you’ll care enough to argue about it may depend on how willing you are to be baited.

John Patrick Shanley’s much-lauded play took Tonys and the drama Pulitzer for its swift, efficient portrait of a clash between a starchy nun and the priest she suspects of pedophilia. But it depends for much of its impact on its principal characters striking a delicate balance of believability: Cherry Jones, the superb actress who created the lead role at the Manhattan Theatre Club and continues to play it on tour, once famously confessed to polling audiences after the show and discovering a thoroughly satisfying mix of uncertainty about the justice of the story’s outcome. A quarter backed the priest, she said, a quarter came down for her Sister Aloysius, and roughly half had no idea who might be in the right.

That, however, was then. Now, in the off-center production at the National Theatre, with the astonishing Jones burning up most of the air in the theater and Chris McGarry playing Father Flynn like a card-table bluffer with a tell the size of Texas, Doubt comes off less as a textured, philosophical argument-starter than a glamorously cast episode of Boston Legal. The jokes land crisply, the ironies lie thick upon the dialogue, and there’s not much hint, alas, of the doubt the playwright supposedly finds so fascinating.

In case it’s not clear already, Cherry Jones is a gift to the theater, and her portrayal of Shanley’s fiercely dogmatic nun is a deeply human thing. Sister Aloysius’ emotional and intellectual severity—“the easy choice today will have its consequences tomorrow,” she lectures a novice teacher early on, coming around later to the stern observation that “satisfaction is a vice”—feels painfully earned. Crabbed and cramped, she seems to creak as she moves and to move only with effort: There’s a stiffness to her shoulders, a heaviness to one leg, and she seems not to bend anywhere, only to hinge at unexpected places. It’s a performance of tremendous physical eloquence, one that bespeaks a bone-weariness, a history of guardedness and disappointment and dissatisfaction that explains the distinctly jaundiced tinge of this woman’s worldview.

And Sister Aloysius does look at life askance, always alert for impropriety: One way Shanley complicates the question of her suspicions about Father Flynn, in fact, is her rigidity about being alone in her office with any man, even the aged local monsignor: “He’s 79, but still.” Don’t confuse the pain and the weariness for weakness, though. When the time comes, Jones’ determined old warrior will come out from behind the bulwark of her habit with a demolishing roar.

Let’s grant further, while we’re granting, that the play is a well-built thing: A pair of pointed sermons, a string of neat tennis-match tête-à-têtes, and one titanic confrontation for the central twosome provide satisfyingly chewy moments for actors and audiences alike. Even this basically suspense-free evening plays pretty involvingly at times, not least when Caroline Stefanie Clay’s wary mother weighs the opportunities the nuns’ parochial school offers her kid—the parish’s first African-American student—against the risks he might be facing there and the risk he faces at home if she repeats the nun’s suspicions to his blame-the-vicim father. Ditto when Lisa Joyce’s fresh-faced Sister James is struggling to choose sides between the woman she nominally answers to and the priest she’s inclined, by training and by temperament, to trust.

There’s much to admire, too, in Hughes’ production, with its handsomely realized sets (by John Lee Beatty) whisking the action efficiently from Sister Aloysius’ believably spartan office to an echoing, richly lit church nave to a convent courtyard that has a convincing (and subtly disturbing) chill of winter about it.

But argue about the justice of it? Not likely: There’s something decidedly cagey about McGarry’s bluff, blue-collar Father Flynn, especially in the scenes that leave him alone with Sister James. Their conversations play more calculatingly, on his side at least, than they ought to. Not ideal, that, if the goal really is to leave the audience with even a grain of uncertainty about whether this particular priest is one of those with something to hide. With that crucial doubt stripped away, Shanley’s play feels less like the parable its subtitle stakes a claim to than a deft—if not particularly moving—exercise in commercial topicality.