Stage Doubt, Screen Doubt

By Don Shewey

Originally published on Advocate.com December 18 2008 1:00 AM ET

I was suspicious
in advance about John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt
when it first opened off-Broadway four years ago. The
play is set in 1964, and the plot centers on a nun, the
principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx, who thinks a
priest is paying too much attention to one of his male
students. The premise struck me as a classic case of
imposing a story that’s topical today onto the
past. Clearly, pedophile priests have been messing with boys
for a long time, but today’s atmosphere of
hypervigilance most assuredly did not exist back when
Shanley and I were prepubescent Catholic-school students.
But I was able to let go of that and appreciate the play for
what it is, both a set of fine character studies and
an allegory (or as the playwright subtitled it, a
parable) about the current political exploitation of
religious faith as a substitute for logic, reason, and
scientific knowledge. After all, in 2004 the country had
just been dragged into war by a president who was
absolutely certain that Saddam Hussein was harboring
weapons of mass destruction and that U.S. invaders
would be greeted as liberators. And we all know how that
turned out!

In the play,
Sister Aloysius is the kind of officious busybody and harsh
disciplinarian who has made nuns a major nightmare for
Catholic school kids for generations, and we learn her
philosophy as she instructs a younger nun, Sister
James, in her crusty autocratic tough-love.

The plot pits her
as villain against the heroic priest, Father Flynn,
whom she fixates on for giving special attention to the
school’s only black kid, whose mother tells the
principal that she knows her son is gay and
appreciates the extra attention from the priest, in contrast
to his father who beats him regularly for his sissy
ways. But the playwright shades all these characters
impressively. The play seemed less about the
pedophilia scandal and more about power, hierarchy, and
misogyny in the church. We see how lack of power and
acknowledgement has embittered Sister Aloysius. When
Father Flynn gets flustered and cantankerous about
Sister Aloysius snooping around in his past, it’s not
clear whether he’s concealing some wrongdoing
or defending the old boys’ network and
priests’ routine condescension to nuns as handmaidens
to their lordships.

The play was
well-served by director Doug Hughes, who conjured uniformly
excellent performances. I always love seeing Cherry Jones
play against her usual squeaky-clean, sympathetic
type; she excavated many layers of Sister
Aloysius’s toughness with a bravura skill that was
right up there with, oh, say, Meryl Streep’s.
Brian F. O’Byrne is another actor I’ve
loved watching since his New York debut in Beauty
Queen of Leenane
; in Doubt he got to do a
thick Bronx accent, which is the kind of stunt British and
Irish actors love taking on (see Daniel Day-Lewis in
Gangs of New York).

When the play
moved to Broadway, where it played for two years and won
Shanley every award in the book, O’Byrne’s
performance got slightly over-broad, playing to the
balcony, but Cherry Jones remained magnificently
steely and contained. And seeing the play a second time
made me admire just how carefully built it is, line by line.
All the ambiguities that collide at the climax of the
play showed themselves in tiny offhanded ways from the
very beginning. The way Shanley continually balances
incriminating evidence with plausible explanation is
manipulative as hell, but skillfully done. 

 DOUBT MerYL Streep PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN X390 (Miramax) | ADVOCATE.COM

The play sustains
its psychological suspense because a live theater
audience accepts stylized narrative as a matter of course.
If only Shanley, as director of the movie version of
Doubt, had stuck to that particular literary
exercise, the movie could have been a tight, claustrophobic
drama (like the best movies based on David Mamet or
Harold Pinter scripts). He certainly had a powerhouse
cast. Meryl Streep proves that you don’t have
to be a powerhouse lesbian to play Sister Aloysius. (While
Cherry Jones was playing the role on Broadway, Linda
Hunt was playing it in L.A.) But of course after
The Devil Wears Prada and The Manchurian
Candidate
, the only way Meryl could have stretched
herself would have been to take a cue from Linda Hunt
and played Father Flynn, a role to which Philip Seymour
Hoffman brings a charmlessness that keeps you from
letting him off the hook.

Amy Adams is fine
as the baby nun who gets caught in the middle of their
showdown, but Viola Davis (one of New York’s great
stage actresses) steals the movie with her one scene
as the black student’s mother, who blows the
principal’s mind with her instinctive grasp of what
options are open to an effeminate black gay boy.

The problem is
that Shanley, a novice filmmaker who cashed in his
Moonstruck chips to direct the notorious 1990
flopola Joe vs. the Volcano, makes a bunch of
novice-filmmaker mistakes. He surrounds the play’s
four iconic characters with dozens of characters
(kids, nuns, parishioners) and then gives them nothing
to do except drain away any mystery with literal-minded
period detail. And the director overloads the movie
with tastelessly obvious symbolism in an attempt to be
“cinematic.”

Just in case you
didn’t know what kind of game the priest and the nun
are playing, he inserts a cat catching a mouse. Just
in case you didn’t get the point that Winds of
Change are blowing through the Catholic Church,
Shanley has them blowing down branches and pouring through
the windows of the fortress which Sister Aloysius
defends against ballpoint pens and “Frosty the
Snowman.” All that hokum detracts from the central
drama -- in fact, makes it look all the more
phony-baloney.