Broadway Review: DOUBT: A PARABLE (Todd Haimes Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on March 14, 2024

in Theater-New York

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.
― Voltaire

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines parable as,  “…a usually short, fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle”. This same resource defines doubt as, “…to call into question the truth of; to be uncertain”. So celebrated playwright John Patrick Shanley certainly knew what he was doing when he titled his 2004 one-act play about possible child molestation at a sixties-era, Catholic grammar school, Doubt: A Parable. This Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning script, currently enjoying a gripping Roundabout Theater Company revival at the Todd Haimes Theater on Broadway, is a laser-focused, philosophical examination. It explores what it is to be in doubt, to be in certainty, to vacillate between the two and to simultaneously hold both in pragmatic acceptance. With a stunning cast, Scott Ellis’s no-frills direction and an impressive set by David Rockwell that takes us inside the church, inside the school and outside on the shared church and school grounds, there’s no question this rousing, tightly knit production of Shanley’s much-lauded play presents a still important conversation for today’s uncompromisingly separated and morally convenient society.

Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan

It’s 1964 at St. Nicholas Catholic School in the Bronx. A predominantly Irish and Italian parish, the school is run by its no nonsense principal Sister Aloysius. She is an old-school nun (when old-school was just current), who revels in the fear and ironclad respect she garners from students, teachers, parents and staff. Though keenly aware of the limits of her power within the firmly patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church, that awareness doesn’t stop her from speaking her mind when necessary. When a younger nun, Sister James, casually mentions a private meeting between parish favorite Father Flynn and the school’s newest twelve-year-old student Donald Muller, who happens to be the school’s only African American child, Sr. Aloysius becomes concerned. After further pressing by her stern boss, Sr. James admits the young boy came back to class decidedly quiet after the encounter, perhaps with traces of alcohol on his breath. Already having doubts about Fr. Flynn, not the least being his embrace of the Church’s slow turn to modernity, the vigilant nun shifts into high gear. She now smells a rat and she’s going to expose Fr. Flynn for the pedophile he is. Or at least she thinks he is, as there is no actual evidence to back up her suspicions, only her singular perceptions. So what does she do? How can she be sure? And is she willing to take down the affable Fr. Flynn and sacrifice the vulnerable Donald Muller in the process?

Amy Ryan and Zoe Kazan

Shanley creates the perfect storm of a situation by picking the most vulnerable character as victim and the most lovable character as possible perpetrator.  Set at a time of immense shifts within American society, American race relations and the Church itself, the play speaks not only to this specific situation of possible “interference” with a child but, on a deeper level, explores how does one maintain long-held beliefs when almost everything one knew and trusted is falling away? And more to the point, should one hold on to those core beliefs when the world is changing?

Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, Liev Schreiber

The person dead center in eye of this ever-shifting maelstrom is fantastic actress Amy Ryan as Sr. Aloysius. Already both an Academy Award nominee and Tony Award nominee, Ryan grabs onto this role with both hands and doesn’t let go. Her Aloysius is firm, strong, stalwart and almost fanatical in her belief – not so much in the Church itself but in the value of discipline and control. Yet Ryan also communicates that it is the nun’s caring side, as much as her fearful side, that motivates her immovable attachment to rules and regulations. And she hilariously makes Sr. Aloysius’s pointed diatribe about why Frosty the Snowman is an existential secular threat to Catholic teachings a highlight of the performance.

Liev Schreiber and Zoe Kazan

Embodying practically every Irish Catholic priest I grew up with in the late sixties and early seventies (minus the possible abuse), Liev Schreiber shines as the engaging, warm-hearted and reliable Fr. Flynn. The likeable Schreiber brings a complicated humanity to his portrayal of this maybe falsely accused man, which makes it even harder to believe the untoward accusations. As Sr. James, Zoe Kazan is endearing as the wavering, idealistic young nun who just wants to be a good teacher. She’s not the same nun at the end of the show as she was in the beginning and anyone who’s lived for a while can relate to those sobering moments when idealism and comfort meet harsh reality. Ellis’s precise direction keeps everything moving at a pace, wisely staying focused on the words themselves and the argument therein. The effect can sometimes be like watching one of those great legal dramas where top lawyers battle it out to reveal the truth.

Amy Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine

Last but certainly not least is Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller. Provided only one long scene in the play but given an emotional arc as treacherous as climbing Mt. Everest, Bernstine absolutely conquers the maddening, conflicting and devastating Sophie’s Choice type trajectory Shanley hands her. Though, from a writing standpoint, one has to wonder why this character/family had to be African American or “Negro” as they are referred to in the play (it was 1964)? By making the family black, the play treads lightly into tropes of the white savior, black people as powerless victims and the harshness/violence of black men/fathers. It certainly adds an effective dramatic layer to the scenario but at what possibly stereotypical cost? However, it is a powerful scene that begins a shift in Sr. Aloysius, so there’s that.

This latest incarnation of Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, currently onstage at the Todd Haimes Theater on Broadway, is a winner. With near perfect acting, direction, design and lighting (kudos to Kenneth Posner’s subtle, beautiful, time-establishing work), this is a revival not to be missed. It’s a throwback to theater at its finest, when great writing discussed important ideas. And with many more laughs than you’d think possible, considering the subject matter. Have no doubt.

photos by Joan Marcus, 2024

Doubt: A Parable
Roundabout Theatre Company
Todd Haimes Theatre, 227 West 42nd St
90 minutes, no intermission
ends on April 21, 2024
for tickets, call 212.719.1300 or visit Roundabout 

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