Why Doubt Matters

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is the most important American play of the decade. Doubt's status as one of the best written, contemporary American plays was immediately apparent when it opened at the small Manhattan Theatre Club back in November of 2004. Later that year, Doubt's significance was enhanced as the production transferred to Broadway earning great acclaim and the play itself was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

When the National touring production of Doubt opened three weeks ago at the Ahmanson Theatre, the roadshow was seen largely as a valedictory lap. Then, two days after opening night, the Mark Foley scandal broke.

Simply, Doubt is the story of a man in an authority position (a priest who teaches in a Catholic school) who is perhaps too friendly with the boys in his charge. The main question of Doubt concerns whether the teacher actually did commit any unholy acts, but the play also speaks to a deeper skepticism: the Doubt that infects us when our institutions allow these acts go undetected—and worse, unpunished.

Not since Tony Kushner's Homebody Kabul opened only a few weeks after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, has a play hit the zeitgeist jackpot like Doubt. Mark Foley's inappropriate IM's don't make Shanley's play better. Doubt worked before Foleygate thanks to its taught, accessible scenario. At its crudest, Doubt is an effective whodunit. At the revival seen briefly last year at the Pasadena Playhouse (starring Linda Hunt) that's all it was; but in this production, actress Cherry Jones elevates the "did-he-didn't-he" story into something more. Jones plays Sister Aloysius, the nun who suspects the priest of acting inappropriately, and her performance makes it clear that what's in Doubt is much more than one teacher and one pupil.

After Foley, audiences here around the country will get to question the policies of expediency--but not just in the Catholic Church. Before Foley, many saw Doubt--which is safely set in the yesteryear of 1964--as simply showing the cracks in the church's policy of denial which led to the the sex-abuse scandals of the last decade. After Foley, it's clear that Shanley isn't just talking about Cardinal Law. The easy analogy is the House Republican's "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy about lawmakers their caucus, but a larger metaphor may be the reason Shanley's play has resonated so deeply with theatergoing Americans.

It is unlikely that Doubt or the Foley scandal will inspire "Road to Damascus"-like epiphanies that end the demonizing of homosexuals to win elections; but both have combined to make a play's politically relevant in a way not seen since the days of Arthur Miller.

Just as Miller's The Crucible could not have been written before the 1950's, Doubt matters because it speaks directly to our times. Doubt speaks to people, not just because its gripping drama (and fictional drama at that--it's not ripped-from-the-headlines agit-prop like too many plays that yearn for topical relevance) but because it quietly shows how the current administration has adopted all the worst habits of the Catholic Church. Shanley's larger metaphor is that all great institutions can be crippled by a combination of strict uniformity and blind expediency. The reason audiences identify with Sister Aloysius is that like her, Americans want to believe (despite suspicions based on unsavory recent events) that the institution they are part of, despite its flaws, is essentially good—perhaps even blessed by God.

Before Foley, Doubt, and the events it depicts in a Bronx Catholic school 40 years ago, didn't force audiences to look at their own complicity in a system that may be so broken or corrupt that it not only allows immoral acts, but rewards them. As the Foley scandal spreads and Doubt tours the country, Sister Aloysius will hopefully convert Americans across the nation into regular theatergoers—and perhaps even spread the virtues of open debate and self-questioning.

Doubt runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through October 29.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.