Sister Aloysius, that "fierce moral guardian" of all things religious, has made a sterling transfer to Broadway.
We're talking about the nun at the center of "Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's taut, tightly written and highly theatrical drama that starts with a question - "What do you do if you are not sure?"
Sister Aloysius is never "not sure," particularly in Cherry Jones' astonishing performance as the woman in charge of a Catholic grade school in the Bronx in 1964.
The authoritarian nun suspects one of the parish priests of having an improper relationship with a 12-year-old boy, and she is determined to prove it.
And therein lies the story of Shanley's engrossing play, which reopened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre. But it's as much a meditation on the question of certainty as it is a mystery about whether anything happened - or not.
Jones, wearing the pinched, pained look of someone who knows she always is right, could have turned Sister Aloysius into a comic gorgon, an easy caricature any parochial-school graduate school would recognize.
Instead, she makes the woman's rigidity believable and, to some extent, even admirable. The actress even gives the woman a sardonic sense of humor, filtering her dyspeptic view of mankind through an often funny prism of outrage.
But then the entire cast, held over from the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club production, is superb. The marvelous Brian F. O'Byrne as the priest is a worthy opponent, a humanistic man who wants to serve as mentor to the young boy, the only black student in the Irish and Italian parish.
Father Flynn represents change in the Church, a priest willing to find shades of gray in a world ruled by absolutes.
And there is lovely work by Heather Goldenhersh as the sweet, idealistic young nun bullied by her superior and by Adriane Lenox as the distraught mother of the young boy.
Director Doug Hughes mines the economy of Shanley's writing for all its worth. The play is only 90 minutes long, but it packs a lot into that hour and a half. There isn't a wasted word in the script, which not only tells a compelling story but puts four distinct, finely drawn characters on stage.
Shanley, author of such plays as "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" and "Four Dogs and a Bone," is known primarily as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "Moonstruck." But the man belongs in the theater.
"Doubt" was the best play of 2004. In its Broadway reincarnation, it could very well capture the title again in 2005.
Sometimes when you see a play twice in a short time, you're disappointed. Seeing John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" again only increased my admiration for it.
Shanley's Oscar for 1987's "Moonstruck" has made him a sought-after playwright, able to get productions for plays of widely varying quality.
In "Doubt," it all pays off. It is the richest piece of theater we've had in years, and in director Doug Hughes' hands, perfectly realized.
"Doubt" has a character who is genuinely heroic.
Sister Aloysius is an elderly nun who is the principal of a Catholic high school in the Bronx in 1964.
She suspects a new priest, Father Flynn, is molesting one of the boys in his -and her - care. Her seasoned politician's instincts tell her, though, that any accusations she makes will pit her against the all-male church-hierarchy, which will close ranks around the priest.
To make matters more painful, the boy himself is the first African-American student in her school. The boy's mother acknowledges her son is probably homosexual. That's why she transferred him from a public school, where other students bullied him. She is less worried about the priest's behavior than her son's future.
What sets the play so far above most of what we get - especially most of what is written on this subject – is that Shanley shows deep empathy with all of his characters, even Father Flynn. That's why it's a play, rather than an indictment.
Sister Aloysius is a commanding figure because she is able to take action within the limitations of her circumstances.
Many modern plays set as their task showing us heroes who flout conventions. By contrast, Shanley's hero is a woman who has the courage to uphold standards when it would be easier to use compassion as a pretext for averting one's gaze.
So much of Sister Aloysius' personality is cantankerous and starchy that she could easily be seen as merely comic.
The sublime Cherry Jones does not sacrifice any laughs, but makes her a towering figure. In the final moments, she also conveys the depths of Sister Aloysius' pain.
Brian F. O'Byrne makes Father Flynn an old-fashioned Irish charmer, but also shows a darker, combative side when Sister Aloysius confronts him.
As a young nun cowed by both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, Heather Goldenhersh makes her character comical and poignant.
Adriane Lenox makes the boy's mother more compelling than she seemed a few months ago. She, too, is burdened with pain her circumstances force her to bottle up.
Hughes has mined all the riches from the script and creates striking stage pictures throughout.
Nuns, priests, a battle of wills, child abuse - all this and more make up the enthralling fabric of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt." The play, which opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre last night, started its vibrant life at the Manhattan Theatre Club and, although the man is long established among America's leading playwrights, it marks Shanley's shamefully belated Broadway debut.
Belated, yes, but sizzling. Graced by two of the most deeply etched performances Broadway has seen in years - by Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne, both masterly - "Doubt" is an extraordinary experience.
The doubt in the play's title is honest. We never really know what the truth is - nor, for that matter, do at least two of the play's four characters.
Quite possibly Shanley isn't that sure. It doesn't matter.
In the Playbill, he quotes from the Book of Ecclesiastes: "In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow."
Or, to put it another way: No one wins.
The play is set in 1964 in The Bronx, where, surely not by whim or chance, the playwright was born and raised.
At a Catholic school, a youngish priest, Father Flynn (O'Byrne), shows perhaps a tad too much interest in the altar boys. A little too much, perhaps . . . or maybe it's simply friendliness.
After all, we hear him offer advice to the basketball team and give two sermons, one on the loneliness of the outsider, the other a parable on gossip. He is naturally charming - and very friendly.
It is one of the nuns, Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh), a young teacher at the school, who raises her scarcely voiced suspicion.
One of the boys, a 12-year-old and the school's first black pupil, has returned from an interview with Father Flynn, obviously disturbed and with alcohol on his breath.
Sister James takes her fears to the school principal, Sister Aloysius (Jones), who acts as if chased by the hounds of Heaven. She instantly switches doubt into suspicion and suspicion into guilt.
"I will bring him down," she declares. And the battle is joined.
When, faced with impending disaster and an imploding career, the priest tells her, "You have no proof of anything," she responds, "I have my certainty."
We in the audience are not quite sure.
This is a play where character is everything, and therefore acting counts for a great deal.
Director Doug Hughes gives his actors every scope, while John Lee Beatty's setting and Catherine Zuber's costumes provide a background that is as authentic as it is unobtrusive.
Jones' Sister Aloysius proves soul-gripping yet terrifying in its absolute conviction. With her pursed lips and sour apple-cheeked face, she is full of sharp phrases, such as "innocence is a form of laziness," and blunt feelings.
She can winkle out the possibilities of paganism in Frosty the Snowman appearing in a Christmas pageant, and hands over sugar cubes with the deliberation of doling out God's mercy.
This is a marvelous portrayal, dry almost to the point of desiccation, wasting not a single glance or gesture.
O'Byrne makes a perfect adversary. By turn confident, bewildered and scared, with a stealthy charm that would do credit to either a leprechaun or an ax murderer, he is exquisitely ambiguous.
As the innocent nun, Goldenhersh flutteringly overacts, speaking in an unidentifiable accent that sounds as if she has a mouthful of marbles. Adriane Lenox, as the understandably wary mother of the child who may be the priest's victim, is superbly restrained and subtle.
No doubt about "Doubt" - it is a great evening in the theater.
One woman's monumental certainty shines as harshly as a naked light bulb amid the shadows of ''Doubt, a Parable,'' the tight, absorbing and expertly acted new drama by John Patrick Shanley. And it will probably surprise no one that this rigidly assured figure is both a nun and the head of a grade school.
The doctrine-wielding, terror-inspiring Sister who knows best has been the subject of jokes, after all, for as long as there have been parochial schools. But Sister Aloysius, who sets ''Doubt'' in motion by pursuing her intuition that a priest is molesting a boy in her school, is of a different order from those wimple-wearing gargoyles.
As written with an uncanny blend of compassion and detachment by Mr. Shanley, and as acted by the splendid Cherry Jones, Sister Aloysius is no monster from a child's nightmare. A steely effortfulness courses through her clipped, brisk speech; her tautly set mouth; her way in conversation of hugging herself into a sloped, stony barricade against the words of others. Sister Aloysius is a triumph of hard-won conviction over human indecisiveness. She is also a testament to the pressures of remaining sure in a world where, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, the truth is never pure and rarely simple.
Like Sister Aloysius, ''Doubt'' itself, directed with artful reserve by Doug Hughes, is more complex than surface descriptions might suggest. Set in the Bronx in 1964, it is structured as a clash of wills and generations between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, the young priest who may or may not be too fond of the schoolboys in his charge. He is played by Brian F. O'Byrne (a Tony winner for ''Frozen''), whose deceptively easygoing, layered performance is the perfect counterweight to that of Ms. Jones.
The play's balance of conflicting viewpoints, its austere institutional setting and its sensational front-page subject at first bring to mind those tidy topical melodramas of truth and falsehood that were once so popular. Think ''The Children's Hour'' crossed with ''Agnes of God.'' And John Lee Beatty's photographically detailed school office and courtyard sets would seem to place ''Doubt'' comfortably in the same tradition.
But Mr. Shanley makes subversive use of musty theatrical conventions. ''Doubt'' hews closely to its reassuringly sturdy, familiar form, the better to explore aspects of thought and personality that are anything but solid.
The play unfolds mostly as a series of dialogues, punctuated by two monologues -- sermons delivered by Father Flynn to his congregation on the subjects of doubt and gossip. Just how self-revealing and even self-incriminating those sermons are is open to question. But it's true that Father Flynn, in keeping with his newfangled ideas about giving the church ''a more familiar face,'' tends to personalize everything.
Which is exactly what annoys Sister Aloysius. As she shares her opinions with Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh), a young teacher of still uncrushed ideals and enthusiasm, her pronouncements have the epigrammatic starch of attitudes pressed into shape over long years.
Sister Aloysius initiates heated conferences with Father Flynn and later with Mrs. Muller (played with a lovely mix of deference and stubbornness by Adriane Lenox), the mother of the 10-year-old student whom the priest has befriended. The boy is the first African-American student in the school, which makes Mrs. Muller especially reluctant to support Sister Aloysius in her suspicions about Father Flynn. ''I don't know that you and I are on the same side,'' she says.
Mr. Shanley is on no one's side. It seems safe to say the playwright agrees with Father Flynn when he explains his preference for parables over reality: ''The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion.'' But ''Doubt'' presents each point of view with reasonableness and eloquence that never seem out of sync with the characters' Bronx accents and ecumenical backgrounds.
While all the performances are excellent, Ms. Jones's and Mr. O'Byrne's are extraordinary, master classes in the use of body language and vocal inflection to convey internal conflict. Each has one especially stunning moment. In Mr. O'Byrne's case, it involves his framing his mouth with the fingers of one hand. For Ms. Jones, it is simply a matter of dropping her voice an octave.
''Doubt'' is an unusually quiet work for Mr. Shanley, a writer who made his name with rowdy portraits of bruising love affairs. But gentleness becomes this dramatist. Even as ''Doubt'' holds your conscious attention as an intelligently measured debate play, it sends off emotional stealth charges that go far deeper.
When Brian F. O'Byrne last appeared on a Broadway stage, it was in the guise of a sexual tormentor and serial killer of underage girls. In John Patrick Shanley's Doubt (* * * 1/2 out of four), which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the actor plays someone accused of less extreme (if similarly disturbing) crimes - but his performance is even more unsettling.
That's because Father Flynn, the character O'Byrne introduced when Doubt opened off-Broadway last fall, is a priest, and an articulate, charismatic one at that. "There's nothing wrong with love," he tells Sister James, a naïve young nun teaching at the parochial school in the Bronx where the play is set, in 1964. "It's an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue."
The "cruel" person he has in mind is the school's principal and Doubt's stringently unsentimental heroine, Sister Aloysius. Dedicating his work “to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes," Shanley traces, with shattering acuity, Aloysius' one-woman struggle against a patriarchal church structure that protects and even promotes men who abuse authority - and love – in unspeakable ways.
The playwright avoids pedantry by presenting the search for truth and virtue as a complicated and not-always. pretty task. "When you take a step to address wrongdoing," Aloysius tells James, who alerts her to Flynn's suspicious activity, "you are taking a step away from God, but in His service."
Shanley and director Doug Hughes are fortunate to have Cherry Jones on hand to speak such lines. The indelible blend of wit and empathy that has made Jones one of theater's greatest living treasures brings out the humor and humanity underlying the nun's stern stoicism.
Under Hughes' sturdy, sensitive guidance, Jones is given a pair of fine foils. O'Byrne is creepily compelling as a seemingly regular guy with an extraordinary knack for exploiting other people's emotions. His Flynn's seduction of the pliable Sister James is as unnerving as his confrontations with her more formidable superior.
Heather Goldenhersh is equally convincing as the guileless, painfully awkward James, whose gentle trust offsets Aloysius' edges and, eventually, helps soften them. And Adriane Lenox lends the right note of nervous urgency to a smaller role, the mother of a boy at the school who has grown curiously close to Flynn.
In his bio for Doubt's program, Bronx native Shanley reveals his own stormy history as a Catholic school survivor: "He was thrown out of St. Helena's kindergarten. He was banned from St. Anthony's hot lunch program for life. He was expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School."
Still, his ability to chronicle far weightier troubles with such eloquence and vigor must make at least someone at those institutions proud.