‘Doubt’ is certainly a winner

“Doubt,” now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, arrives with impressive credentials. Winner of numerous Broadway drama awards, it also captured the Pulitzer Prize for its author, John Patrick Shanley. Because of its thought-provoking subject matter, careful crafting and fine-tuned writing, the play deserves its kudos.

However, this is not a blockbuster that leaves you gasping as you leave the theater. It takes a somewhat familiar subject and transforms it into a moral maze. Shanley has set the play in 1964, explaining that it was a time when the old ways of dressing, thinking and viewing the world were all changing. Are things changing at the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx? Sister Aloysius, the school principal who does not seem to be ready for any newfangled ideas, imparts her particular tid-bits of wisdom to a young nun teacher.

When she is confronted with a problem concerning a priest and a young boy, she sets about resolving it with determination and stubbornness. The fact that she may be ruining several lives does not deter her. She has no doubt about her duty to set things right, to her way of thinking. Nothing stops her headlong plunge dedicated to proving someone guilty until proved innocent. Not even the mother of the boy can sway her.

The play starts out with a sermon, addressed to the audience by Father Flynn, who recounts the story of a sailor, alone on a raft, who trusts to the stars to guide him home. Later in the play, he relates a charming anecdote about gossip.

Cherry Jones, a household name in Broadway circles, won a Tony for her performance as the ruthless nun. Made up to look much older than she is, the swollen cheeks make it sometimes difficult for her to enunciate clearly. Nevertheless, her timing and inflections are impeccable and she has a tight grip on the role.

Chris McGarry, as Father Flynn, is every bit as good, and must be congratulated on his Bronx accent. He is charming as the sermonizer and also as the boys’ basketball coach. The young nun is played convincingly by Lisa Joyce who finds she has a mind of her own. A special word of praise must go to Adriane Lenox, as the boy’s mother. She is just remarkable in her one scene, a confrontation with Sister Aloysius.

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The set is extremely efficient, gliding seamlessly from church to office to courtyard. Credit goes to John Lee Beatty. Catherine Zuber dressed the characters appropriately. Doug Hughes directs the hour and a half drama so that the humor is captured, the suspense is heightened and there is no doubt about its message. Or is there?

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