Conversation: ‘Doubt’

June 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Father Flynn, a friendly, charismatic priest and a pedophile. Or is he?

FATHER FLYNN: What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the play “Doubt” opens, he speaks directly to us, his congregation.

FATHER FLYNN: There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. I want to say to you: Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Set in a Catholic school in 1964, “Doubt” explores what happens when a hard-headed, strict principal — a nun named Sister Aloysius — comes to believe that a young priest has molested a male student. She has no real evidence, just what she calls her “certainties.” The play, now on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, has recently been awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its author is John Patrick Shanley.

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY, Playwright: I was very interested in having a powerful character who was certain she was right chasing down a course of action that was going to do a lot of harm if she was wrong and investigating what it was to live in a world that was a clash between certainty and ambiguity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shanley is perhaps best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Moonstruck,” the delightful 1987 film starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. In “Doubt,” he writes of a world he himself grew up in and rebelled against.

In the biography in the playbill it says — I’ll just read from it: “John Patrick Shanley is from the Bronx. He was thrown out of St. Helena’s kindergarten. He was banned from St. Anthony’s hot lunch program for life. He was expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School.”

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: All completely true.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you had quite a checkered past.

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: Yes. Yes. Well, I was born with an artistic personality. And so faced with the confines of a perfectly defined world, the kind of world that I entered, I was going to ask questions and probe and push around in funny ways, and that was going to mean that I was going to get in trouble.

JEFFREY BROWN: Though he set his play in 1964, Shanley clearly had an eye on our own time and the sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. But he was also interested in the broader society– people yelling at each other on talk shows, politicians on all sides full of certainty, no one expressing doubt.

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: In days gone by, doubt was the province of the wise. Now it’s perceived to be a sign of weakness. You’re supposed to fire back your answer irrespective of what the other person is saying, and prevail. And I’d like to see a more spacious conversation.

SISTER ALOYSIUS (scene from “Doubt”): How is your class? How is Donald Muller?

JEFFREY BROWN: In the play, Sister Aloysius learns from a young teacher, Sister James, that there may be problem.

SISTER ALOYSIUS (scene from “Doubt”): Has anyone hit him?


SISTER ALOYSIUS: Someone will. And when it happens, send them right down to me.

SISTER JAMES: I’m not so sure anyone will.

SISTER ALOYSIUS: There is a statue of St. Patrick on one side of the church altar and a statue of St. Anthony on the other. This parish serves Irish and Italian families. Someone will hit Donald Muller.

SISTER JAMES: He has a protector.


SISTER JAMES: Father Flynn.


JEFFREY BROWN: Cherry Jones plays Sister Aloysius.

CHERRY JONES: Doug Hughes, our esteemed director. Actors always want to make their characters noble and flawless, and you know, I do anyway. I have — I come from the Greer Garson School of Acting. And Doug made sure that I made her tough as nails, absolutely sure, absolutely certain, unforgiving in her pursuit of this man. And what’s interesting about that, the audience may hate her, but they also have a sort of grudging respect for her, and people many in the audience a true, deep respect for her courage in going after a Roman Catholic priest in 1964.

JEFFREY BROWN: I must say, when we just met a little while ago, I was a little taken aback, because you look and sound nothing like Sister Aloysius.

CHERRY JONES: (Laughs) Well, I had once seen Mother Teresa interviewed and she sounded like a truck driver. And you always think a saint should sound like a saint. But you know, this is a woman who’d been ordering people around for 65 years. I brush my eyebrows down, I put on those glasses and I put on a bonnet which gives me, you know, about 50 double chins. And once I get that physicality going and lower my voice and make it craggy, she’s just ready to roll.

JEFFREY BROWN: Irish actor Brian O’Byrne plays Father Flynn, and plays very much to the audience.

BRIAN O’BYRNE: I always look at the people in these first few rows right here. I give them a little smile, and they smile. The real key is making the connection with the audience initially, because then when it flips back into the scenes, you guys in some way are on my side. Even though the most — I mean, the worst thing you could ever say about a person, she brings up. The hard thing is, I think, even knowing the accusations that she makes, that if any of us have to get in — if an audience member had to drive to Buffalo with one of us in the car, they would probably want me to go — ( Laughter ) even though, even though, so I think —

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait, do you agree with him about that?

CHERRY JONES: I’m afraid I do. ( Laughs ) I wouldn’t want to drive with me to buffalo in a car.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn finally face off, it’s one of the great heavyweight fights on Broadway today.

FATHER FLYNN (scene in “Doubt”): You have not the slightest proof of anything. SISTER ALOYSIUS: But I have my certainty, and armed with that I will go to your last parish and the one before that if necessary. I will find a parent. Trust me, I will — a parent who probably doesn’t know that you are still working with children. And once I do that you will be exposed. You may even be attacked, metaphorically or otherwise.

FATHER FLYNN: You have no right to act on your own. You are a member of religious order.

BRIAN O’BYRNE: And these two people go head to head to head to head. Now most plays, and in life, other than maybe the baseball field, people don’t get in each other’s faces like this: Shouting. Shouting and clearing their lungs.

FATHER FLYNN (scene in “Doubt”): You have taken vows, obedience being one. You answer to us. You have no right to step outside the Church.

SISTER ALOYSIUS: I will step outside the Church if that’s what needs to be done, though the door should shut behind me.

BRIAN O’BYRNE: At any moment, it wouldn’t be a surprise if either of us hit each other.

CHERRY JONES: Or strangled each other.

BRIAN O’BYRNE: Strangled actually is probably better because —

CHERRY JONES: Because they’re fighting —

BRIAN O’BYRNE: We want to inflict a little more pain, not that sudden smash.

CHERRY JONES: Yeah, no, no, pain. Because they’re two people absolutely fighting for their lives, and in Aloysius’ case, fighting for the soul of a child.

BRIAN O’BYRNE: Oh, please.

CHERRY JONES: I am. She is.

BRIAN O’BYRNE: She’s saying something completely wrong. It’s complete, complete lies.

CHERRY JONES: She’ll go down — she’ll go down for the count for that child.


JEFFREY BROWN: Even here, you have to go at it over this?

BRIAN O’BYRNE: We never give up. One thing is that we will never, as actors, we will never let down our characters.


JEFFREY BROWN: We’re not going to give away the result of this battle. Suffice it to say that “Doubt” ends as it begins, with plenty of uncertainty. And the playwright is giving away nothing.

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: Oh, I do not profess to know the end of the play. The end of the play takes place after the play is over, when you go out and have a drink and you have a fight with your wife about what happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: The end the play, you mean, it continues.

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: The last act of the play takes place after the play is over, when people walk out that door and decide or don’t decide what the play’s about and who did what. And I have an e-mail address in the program for the play.

JEFFREY BROWN: I noticed that. I thought that was kind of bold.

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: I think it might be; might be a little reckless. But I can’t tell you how many e- mails I’ve gotten from husbands and wives saying, “My husband says the priest did it, and I said he didn’t, and you know, you just got to settle this for us.” And I write back and say, “I’m so glad you came to the play and I won’t settle anything.”

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the key thing to writing a play that works?

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: Well, I think one of the things that makes a story work is that when you’re writing it, you’re in it and you’re as far along in it as the audience is and you don’t know what’s going to happen. But if you’re really in it in the present tense, it’s like a campfire that you’re all sitting around and you see those flames together.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re in doubt.

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: I live, I thrive on doubt.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Doubt”, the play, continues its Broadway run at least through the summer.

GWEN IFILL: “Doubt” won last night for best play, and Cherry Jones won for best actress.