In our world of over-hyped mega productions, "Doubt" was greeted in the theatre world and the world of letters with kudos and applause and rapturous joy. 2005 Tony Awards were showered upon this original production (the play, each actor either awarded or nominated, the director, the production designers) and playwright John Patrick Shanley garnered the 2005 Pulitzer prize for drama. Some lucky among us saw the original cast Off Broadway, then more of us had a chance to catch that cast when the play to Broadway in early 2005. Chicago now is a recipient of the most recent wave of gifts: the original star Cherry Jones, and several Broadway cast colleagues (standbys and/or understudies but Broadway nonetheless) are touring the country with this gem of a play and have landed in Chicago for a short while. You will have missed a great deal if you allow this production to pass through town without seeing it: the production itself, the performances within it, and perhaps as important as all of that, this representation of a grand American theatrical tradition: "touring the provinces". Julie Harris believes in it; the Lunts lived the life; Helen Hayes and Katharine Hepburn honored us all by doing it. And now Cherry Jones brings her performance in the role she created to us. An honor. Attention must be paid.
Subdued gold, deep burgundy, dim lighting, nuanced newly refurbished original architectural details await you in the LaSalle Bank Theatre. There is an anticipatory buzz about the place and the production when you take your seat. This venue is as gorgeous as any New York or London theatre has to offer. This play and this production do it justice.
"Doubt" is the story of a child who may or may not have been molested in a Catholic co-educational school run by nuns and priests in 1960s America. This is a story of adult perceptions, and the balance of doubt and certainty in their lives -- a theme introduced in the play's first scene as a sermon by Father Flynn (Chris McGarry). The action then circles around a young, ostracized, African American male student we never see and whose words and perspective we never hear. Our young student is in the class of the inexperienced and enthusiastic Sister James (Lisa Joyce). Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) has called her young colleague into her office to check in on her class, to give the neophyte teacher pointers, and to inquire circuitously about this young charge.
We find that Father Flynn "has taken an interest" in young Mr. Muller. Those few words set a series of thoughts and actions (and reactions) in motion. This is a play of envisioned possibilities, adult expectations and responses to possibly imagined, possibly real harm to a marginalized child. Class, gender roles, and adult responses to moral considerations of right and wrong infuse this marvelously original intensely American morality play. When the child's mother Mrs. Muller (Caroline Stefanie Clay) comes in to talk with Sister Aloysius about the Sister's suspicions, the way Mrs. Muller balances the Sister's concerns with the needs of her child adds sophisticated nuance to this story, making it more than a story of persecution and reprisal.
Sister Aloysius is rigid and rigorous and full of surprising humor at herself and at the world. She is as hard on herself as she is on other around her. Her views on writing with the then new fangled ball point pens as opposed to fountain pens, for example, are a metaphor for her view of education: "ball points make them press down and when they press down they write like monkeys". The task of education and adult's role in the world is to teach grace, to corral loose behavior, and train the raw impulses of the children in her care to behave as moral and upright and Catholic adults in the world.
This closely crafted world of intensely and sparely lived lives, among nuns, among priests, and the children and their families just outside the world of the play, just off stage, is imbued by evil. Evil lurks for some characters just around the corner, just at the edge of their consciousness. To Aloysius, the innocence of the children and the innocence of youth is something that itself needs to be shaken awake. Her job is to strengthen the resolve of each child in her care and sister in her Order to be ever vigilant. She says to her young colleague "innocence is a form of laziness". Life is a hard and earnest slog for this hard and earnest and yet surprisingly humorous character. She reflects upon (and justifies) her active stance toward thwarting evil by not sitting by. She says "Innocence can be wisdom only in a world without evil." She is compelled to act on her suspicions.
Aloysius and Cherry Jones, this character and the actress portraying her, rule this play, while the honed balance of all the performances allows the story to shine. The set by John Lee Beatty is spare and efficient, replicating quite closely the Broadway set on the LaSalle Bank Theatre stage. The lighting by Pat Collins is delicate and bold, in equal measure -- you are reminded at the end of each scene that you are, in fact, in a theatre and theatrical lighting pinpoints and highlights characters or stage actions in stark silhouette. David Van Tieghem's sound design effortlessly evokes a locker room full of animated boys or a solitary courtyard singing bird with equal delicacy.
You will regret missing this performance if you don't make it down to the old Shubert Theatre. I myself will attempt to visit a second time before it moves along on its tour.