Olney Theatre's Doubt

“I don’t think he did it.” One lady said to another as they were leaving Olney Theatre last night.
“Oh, really?” responded her companion, surprised.

I am the kind of person who, given the opportunity, will force my theatre companions to undergo a detailed discussion of whatever production we’ve just seen. So I naturally love a play that engenders these discussions without my prodding. The play is John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, which had a sold out off-Broadway run, transferred to Broadway, and won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards. The successful national tour just came through Washington last year. I missed all these productions, and so I was determined to catch the local production, directed by John Going, currently at Olney Theatre. If you have yet to see Doubt, catch Olney’s production before it closes on Sunday.

Doubt takes place at a Catholic church and school in the Bronx. It is the year 1964. The school has its first African American student, Donald Mullen. He’s doing better than everyone expected, partly because he has a friend and protector in Father Flynn (James Denvil). Sister Aloysius (Brigid Cleary) suspects Father Flynn of having an inappropriate relationship with the child. She has no proof, only her gut, and the script never reveals the story. Each audience member gets to have his or her own theory.

Did he or didn’t he? It’s not an easy conclusion to come to. The audience, like the young teacher Sister James (Patricia Hurley) is torn between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Brigid Cleary is a crusty, tough Sister Aloysius, the kind of Sister we’ve all had or heard about. She is Authority. Cleary imbues her with both strength and weariness. She has a clear sense of right and wrong, but Cleary always plays the character with great depth. Her performance in the final scene was so remarkable, I wish I could have hit rewind and watched it over again.

Sister Aloysius is so strong and grounded, that her instincts must be right. But who would want to believe such a terrible thing of Father Flynn? Particularly Denvil’s Father Flynn, who is good looking, charming, and personable. And yet, is he charming, or is he too charming? Is he earnest or is he slippery? Is Sister Aloysius’ quest a righteous one, or a witchhunt?

4 stars
Through March 16th

More thoughts below, and could be considered spoilers, so only read on after you’ve seen a production.

The script and this production are so strong because they leave you with questions not immediately related to the plot itself. Questions about the power of suspicion. Questions about what is moral certainty, and is there any such thing? What if Father Flynn did do it? Well, then Sister Aloysius only succeeds in protecting some children, but there is still inherent unfairness that cannot be fought. What if he didn’t do it? Then Sister Aloysius has dragged an innocent man through the mud without any proof to go on. What if he had done it in the past, but had repented, and was doing it no longer? This is my personal theory, and I think it causes the most interesting questions. How far does forgiveness go? Are there some crimes which damage trust forever? Are there some crimes for which the punishment should be unending? And who gets to decide what those crimes are? If this is what has happened, does Father Flynn deserve our compassion? Does he or anyone deserve a second chance? Do we believe a man can molest a child, and repent and never do it again? Is it a crime, or a sickness? Is it both? Is it possible to do good and bad at the same time? Can one do a good thing for the wrong reason? Does this make the action less good?


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