John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" continues to cast a devastating spell as it makes its first stop on a multicity tour at the Ahmanson. Directed by original helmer Doug Hughes with three Broadway company members in tow, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning battle of wits between a charismatic priest and the nun determined to take him down plays like a 90-minute collective intake of breath.

John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” continues to cast a devastating spell as it makes its first stop on a multicity tour at the Ahmanson. Directed by original helmer Doug Hughes with three Broadway company members in tow, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning battle of wits between a charismatic priest and the nun determined to take him down plays like a 90-minute collective intake of breath. That’s in no small measure because of Cherry Jones, a brilliant actress at the height of her powers. It’s not inconceivable that one day people will reminisce about this perf the way an earlier generation spoke of seeing Laurette Taylor in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Less heralded aspect of this remarkable display of the acting craft, is that it starts out so peerlessly funny. Jones wittily embodies every traditionalist principal who ever tried to run a school on sheer terror. She generates enormous mirth putting starch in the character of starry-eyed novice teacher Sister James (Lisa Joyce) and decrying the tradition of Christmas pageants: “Last year the girl playing Our Lady was wearing lipstick. I was waiting in the wings for that little jade.”

However, once James reports having smelled liquor on the breath of young Donald Muller following his rectory visit with popular Father Flynn (Chris McGarry), all of the actor muscles that have been making us laugh turn to chilling our blood. With jaw set and eyes raised as if in communion with Heaven, Jones is utterly overcome by the nun’s conviction that the man is a pedophile and that she is called to bring him to justice.

Her efforts become more dogged as the evidence against the priest seems ever more dubious: his long nails, a boy’s reaction to a wrist touch. Yet Jones’ righteousness never falters, and her declaration, “I will step outside the Church if that’s what needs to be done, though the door should shut behind me!” is passionate enough to make Father Flynn’s staunchest supporters among the aud think twice.

Such is Jones’ (and Shanley’s) ability to foster ambivalence that, while we are meant to be disturbed by the nun’s monomania and repelled by the power of rumor to destroy the possibly innocent, it is hard to escape the inference that if there had been more Sister Aloysiuses willing to go to the mat against wayward priests in 1964, there might have been fewer scandals to uncover and fewer victims to comfort 40 years later.

Jones is fortunate in her adversary. McGarry, standby for the original Flynn of Brian F. O’Byrne, variously sends off signals of both virtue and corruption in his desperate attempt to prove a negative. Indeed, his perf can be read as suggesting Flynn may be innocent of this charge but has been guilty of abuse in the past, a tantalizingly interesting third option on which aud may chew.

His sermons are delivered with excessive pleading; the man ought to fall from a more self-satisfied place. But when it comes to employing streetwise muscle in mortal combat with his enemy, McGarry’s Flynn is more than able to hold his own.

Tony winner Adriane Lenox as Donald’s mother, perfectly turned out by costumer Catherine Zuber as a ’60s-era matron, instantly and believably shifts from deference to defiance when Sister Aloysius declares her willingness to sacrifice Donald to get to Flynn. With beautifully modulated nervous tension, Lenox challenges assumptions about how best to protect her boy and scores with the key question of the night: “Why you need to know something like that for sure when you don’t?”

Weak link is Joyce as the novice, trapped between the demands of duty and the call of her heart. Her Bronx accent is clumsy, and her line readings are monotonously heavy, surprising after her mesmerizing work in Chicago and Gotham in Adam Rapp’s “Red Light Winter.” It may be that she is more comfortable playing a sensual woman with multiple secrets, as in Rapp’s piece, than a modest one whose mind is an open book.

Hughes’ direction demonstrates his mastery of the expressive stage picture. Characters’ physical proximity is so carefully managed that even if one couldn’t hear the dialogue, the essence of each scene would come through visually. Device of ending each scene with a flash to a rectangle of white light, stunningly executed by Pat Collins, is audaciously Brechtian in the way it allows us to step back from the naturalism and take stock of where we stand in the unfolding mystery.

“Doubt” becomes richer with each encounter, in part because its concerns range far beyond the Agatha Christie puzzle element and the pedophilia theme to touch upon matters of civil rights, child psychology and educational theory. Moreover, in the post-Vatican II setting, Aloysius and Flynn’s arguments mirror the clash between fundamentalists and progressives that divides the Catholic Church even today.

Still, Shanley subtitled his play “A Parable” for a reason. “Doubt” will be played for years to come, and in the best productions — and future companies will be hard-pressed to improve on this one — the spectator will side with the priest one moment and against him the next, ultimately realizing the elusiveness of truth and the need to embrace, rather than resist, life’s inevitable uncertainties.

Doubt

Ahmanson Theater; 1,656 seats; $80 top

Production

A Center Theater Group, Carole Shorenstein Hays, MTC Prods. (Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove), Roger Berlind and Scott Rudin presentation of a play in one act by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes.

Creative

Sets, John Lee Beatty; lighting, Pat Collins; costumes, Catherine Zuber; original music and sound design, David Van Tieghem; production stage manager, Charles Means. Opened, reviewed Sept. 27, 2006; runs through Oct. 29. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Father Brendan Flynn - Chris McGarry Sister Aloysius Beauvier - Cherry Jones Sister James - Lisa Joyce Mrs. Muller - Adriane Lenox
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