by Tulis McCall

John Patrick Shanley wasn’t kidding when he titled this play “Doubt A Parable”  There is more theorizing and speculation thrown around here than a person can grab in one go-round.  As the audience we are not only asked to open our heart, but our brain and spirit as well.  It’s a workout!

FYI – I had the pleasure of seeing “Doubt” at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2004.  This revival by the same theatre company now at the Todd Haimes Theatre is proof that nothing has been lost in the intervening decades.  It is a crisp and dense re-examination of the tale and worthy of your time.

The time is the fall 1964 when the country, perhaps the world, is still reeling from the Kennedy Assassination.  St. Nicholas School is in the Bronx and serves mainly Irish and Italian families.  The nuns are from Sisters of Charity and the tight ship is run by Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan) who is on the lookout for any untoward behavior,  such as a girl wearing lipstick in the Christmas Pageant or a boy inducing a bloody nose on himself.  Fighting evil might mean stepping away from God in order to do battle, but the battle is worth the cost.  Sister James (Zoe Kazan) is a young nun filled with hope and uncertainty.  She wants to be loyal not only to God, but to the CHurch and Sister Aloysius as well.  It is a precarious balancing act.  The slightest tilt in one direction or another could tip the scales and cause an untended uproar.

When Sister James notices unusual behavior between Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber) and the only black student in the school, she brings the news to Sister Aloysius.  It lights a fuse that Aloysius will nurse without regard to possible consequences.

The decision of what happened between the priest and the boy is left up to us.  Both sides are heard but not listened to.  Until Donald Muller’s mother is brought in to the mix. When Mrs. Muller (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) hears Sister Aloysius suspicions, she turns the entire situation upside down with laser precision.  The Church may be the Church – but don’t mess with a mother protecting her son.

Amy Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine; photo by Joan Marcus

The nut of this play is summed up in an exchange between Flynn and Sister James,  She asks him if a story in his sermon was his creation.

FLYNN: Yes. You make up little stories to illustrate. In the tradition of the parable.

SISTER JAMES: Aren’t the things that actually happen in life more worthy of interpretation than a made up story?

FLYNN: No. What actually happens in life is beyond interpretation. The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion.

This is a fierce play delivered with kid gloves.  You never see the one-two punches coming until you get up from your seat and discover your equilibrium has shifted.

The cast is a terrific ensemble that brings delicacy, precision and passion to every moment.  Amy Ryan was a little rocky at the top of the play (she joined the cast as a replacement for Tyne Daly on February 13) but she soon caught her stride and sailed a smooth ship.  Liev Schreiber gave a surprising and vulnerable performance.  Zoe Kazan’s Sister James showed us the weight she bore as an innocent looking for simplicity and stability. Quincy Tyler Bernstine hit it out of the park as she examined the situation and chose her strategy without lifting a finger.  Masterful work.

The creative team has created poetry that engages our senses and frees us to enter the secluded confines of this remote Catholic enclave located in the middle of town.  Scott Ellis finds the many colors that Shanley has laid out.  There is humor as well as dogma.  We need both.

Most of all – there is doubt. Take a little with you on your way out.

Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, Directed by Scott Ellis

WITH Amy Ryan, Liev Schreiber, Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Zoe Kazan.

The creative team for Doubt: A Parable includes: David Rockwell (Sets), Linda Cho (Costumes), Kenneth Posner (Lights), and Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound).

Doubt: A Parable opens officially on Thursday, March 7, 2024. This is a limited engagement through Sunday, April 21, 2024 at the Todd Haimes Theatre on Broadway (227 West 42nd Street).  TICKETS.