Doubt at the Alliance Theatre 

Mother superior may — or may not — have jumped the gun

America's public discourse typically treats doubt as a mortal sin. Our forthright, "no-spin" culture equates certainty with strength and leadership, and denounces as weakness any acknowledgement of ambiguity or gray area. Being a "flip-flopper" is often as bad as being a traitor.

John Patrick Shanley didn't give his 2004 play the title Doubt just because it's short and snappy like Proof. He did it in the name of renewing the idea of uncertainty as a moral virtue. Shanley wrote Doubt in the wake of the high-profile Catholic church abuse scandals, and also in response to the political climate, which devalued facts in favor of appearing tough or trusting gut feelings. Subtitled "A Parable," Doubt depicts a priest accused of interfering with an altar boy, but the play wrestles with larger issues as well, in the same way that Margaret Edson's Wit took on bigger themes than cancer.

Doubt won seemingly every theater award in America and became a national "get" play. The Alliance Theatre's gripping main stage production shows no hesitation in taking on Doubt's explosive content, and director Susan V. Booth keeps the play's provocations under control. Doubt may be designed to start arguments, but it also encourages careful thinking.

Sister Aloysius (Pamela Nyberg), principal of the Bronx's St. Nicholas Catholic Church and School in 1964, would reject the old spelling-class rule of thumb that "the principal of your school is your pal." She's a harsh taskmaster who represents impossibly high standards and scolds young, enthusiastic Sister James (Cara Mantella) for her naivete: "Innocence is a form of laziness." Sister Aloysius is such a traditionalist she even dislikes ballpoint pens.

She finds a natural enemy in Father Flynn (Thomas Piper), a chummy young priest who delivers accessible sermons, speaks to students on their level and supports Vatican II's progressive policies. The nun suspects something inappropriate in his relationship with a 12-year-old boy (who happens to be the school's first African-American student) and seeks corroboration for her feelings. Sister Aloysius must finesse a fraught situation in which the church hierarchy favors men at every turn and where a false accusation could destroy the priest's career. Todd Rosenthal's set emulates a cathedral's soaring architecture, but also hangs ominously over the action as if confining the characters.

Doubt represents a striking change of pace for Shanley, who penned quirky, shaggy romances such as Italian-American Reconciliation, which were frequently staged at smaller Atlanta playhouses like Actor's Express. With Doubt, Shanley kicks things up a notch, displaying such eloquent rhetoric and dramatic discipline that it's almost as though he found a short, undiscovered George Bernard Shaw script and passed it off as his own.

The play builds to crackling, deliciously played confrontations equivalent to the interrogation scenes in police procedurals. Booth's direction makes the most of the details in Doubt's battle of wills. A rule prohibits a priest and a nun from being alone in the same room, so before their first meeting, Father Flynn stands in the doorway, mirroring Sister Aloysius' perception of him as a marginal figure, neither one thing or another. When Father Flynn asks for sugar with his tea, she says she put it away for Lent and never brought it out. When he replies, "Must not have been much to give up, then," you don't have to know Catholic rules to score one for Father Flynn.

Piper's shrewd Father Flynn nearly comes across as a matador to Nyberg's hard-charging, bullish Sister Aloysius. The slightly mannered, Miss Hathaway qualities in Nyberg's performance give way to a righteousness that's both protective of the student and reckless. Piper comes across as likable but slippery: either good, or too good to be true. (And it might be my imagination, but Piper seemed to adapt a thicker, almost Kennedy-esque accent when Flynn was under stress.)

Mantella's Sister James turns out to be an unexpectedly important character. She provides not just welcome comic relief but a surrogate for the audience in a cloistered, Catholic world in which the nuns wear Quaker-style bonnets instead of the wimples we know from Sister Act. Although Mantella is funny and credible, she hits the laugh lines pretty hard, as if Booth is concerned that the audience won't connect to the play's setting.

When Sister Aloysius meets with the boy's mother (Donna Biscoe), a whole new set of factors examines how the social structure was stacked against women and African-Americans in the early 1960s. The stakes are raised and assumptions change so drastically that it's like a trap door opens under the nun's feet, and Biscoe achingly conveys the mother's willingness to accept a short-term evil for a long-term good.

In a way, the show's first half sews suspicions of Father Flynn, and the second half airs the second thoughts. During Doubt's Broadway production, people supposedly said that the play's real second act consisted of the arguments that took place afterward. On opening night in the Woodruff Arts Center lobby, everyone seemed to have a different perspective on the play's burden of proof and who deserved the most sympathy. With lines such as "Even if you feel certainty, it's an emotion, not a fact," Doubt delivers a passionate sermon about public and private behavior in the guise of an investigation story that will seize any audience's attention. I'm sure of it.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly named a female actor and her character in the caption of the above photograph. 

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