Yesterday afternoon was my third time seeing the film version of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” – and I am as hooked as ever. I first saw the movie version on Christmas Day night – driving up to Milwaukee to see the 9:15 showing because I just couldn’t bear to wait any longer. (The Bergs often have very little patience and restraint when it comes to the things we want.) A couple of weeks later I saw the film a second time with my best friend, Marshall. Yesterday it was with Kathy as well as our good friends Val and Bob Conner. And it would not be a staggering surprise if I see it in the theater at least one more time – and when it comes out on DVD, I will probably be camped outside of Best Buy in a sleeping bag so I can first in line to purchase it.
And for all that, I like the play even more. I was very very privileged to see this play on Broadway, seated front row center as a matter of fact – plus two performances in Chicago and yet another at the Milwaukee Rep. And were I independently wealthy, I could actually imagine myself jetting all over the country to see productions of this, especially if I knew that an interesting actress were taking on the main role of Sister Aloysius. (I know that Linda Lavin- TV’s Alice – has done it . . . as has Academy-award winner Linda Hunt . . . . and there are all kinds of powerful actresses I would love to see attempt the role – Glenn Close, Tyne Daly, Kathy Bates – and if it were a few years ago, Lauren Bacall, Bea Arthur, Agnes Moorhead, Patricia Neal. . . I could go on and on.)
In case you don’t know – and I will keep this very very brief – the play (actually titled Doubt: A Parable) is set in a Boston parochial school in 1964. At the heart of it is a crusty old nun, Sister Aloysius, who becomes convinced that the young and charismatic priest of the parish, Father Flynn, is having an improper relationship with one of the boys, and she is determined to bring him down – but is almost hopelessly constrained by the hierarchy of the day. Her intermittent ally in her effort is a young nun who teaches in the school whose tentative suspicion about the priest is what sets all of this in motion. The play has a total of four characters- the two nuns, the priest, and the mother of the young boy (the only African-American enrolled in the school). That’s part of what I adored about the play – its unrelenting focus on the four principals. (The film, by contrast, has 54 names in the cast credits- although the vast majority are more like extras than characters. But still, that gives you a sense of how much the play has been opened up for the film version.)
When I saw this play on Broadway, I was absolutely shattered by it, to the point where I sat there in my seat as the rest of the audience filed out, tears streaming down my cheeks. The little old lady who had sat next to me leaned down to me as she passed by and, seeing all the tears, said tenderly to me “you must be Catholic.” I just smiled at her, unwilling to shatter this assured assumption she was making about me.
The truth is that I’m not certain, even after all this time, of just why this play affects me so powerfully. I mean, there are lots of incredible plays out there that have moved me – All my Sons, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Miracle Worker, The Rainmaker, Equus – but this play tears my guts out like a blender in cookie dough. I am helpless before it. Why?
Part of it is that I am a sucker for supreme excellence – and each and every time I have seen it I have felt so incredibly privileged that this play opened during my lifetime and that I have been so incredibly fortunate . . . roughly akin to those lucky souls who were around when the groundbreaking musical “Showboat” first opened in 1927. (Or did they have any clue of what they were seeing?)
But on a more personal level, I think I find myself identifying very powerfully with Sister Aloysius as a figure who finds herself in a maelstrom of change. 1964 means that the Catholic Church is just beginning to feel the fresh breezes of Vatican II on top of all of the other modern forces that will change our society so radically and fundamentally. She is Old School in every way, fervently believing that modern conveniences like ball point pens (!) are a disgraceful concession to laziness. . . sternly rejects any notion that the teachers in that school should be friends with the students. . . and is nothing less than appalled that the priest would even think of a including a “heretical” secular song like “Frostie the Snowman” in the Christmas program. She even clamps down on young Sister James for being a bit too energetic and enthusiastic in her teaching and for her tendency to perform for her students. “You think I perform for my students?” Sister James protests in disbelief. “As if you were on a Broadway stage!” the older nun replies tartly. And on and on it goes- this stern old nun holding fast against all that is changing around her. I can’t say that I am Sister Aloysius in every way, but as someone who began teaching before there was any notion whatsoever of a world wide web, let alone e-mail and the like, I find myself to be a rather Stubborn Dog resolutely disinterested in learning New Tricks. . . firmly determined to make my students read books and to take big, long tests and to listen to me (gasp!) lecture . . . and if I had more of the crust and the courage of Sister Aloysius, I would probably speak up about such matters much more than I do.
Which brings up the other theme of this play which haunts me to the core of my being. There is something truly remarkable about watching this old nun do all she can to bring down this priest whom she suspects of terrible wrongdoing . . . but she has to do it with tremendous cunning to say nothing of grim determination in the face of nearly overwhelming odds against her. And in the towering climax of the play, as the priest and the nun are both literally and figuratively toe-to-toe, he screams at her “You have taken vows! Obedience being one! You answer to Us! You have no right to step outside the church!” And Sister Aloysius thunders back “I will step outside the church if that’s what needs to be done, though the doors should shut behind me!” a brief pause for breath “I will do what needs to be done if it means that I am damned to hell!” I just typed all of that without so much as a glance at the script. That’s how vividly this exchange is burned in my brain. And I think part of what I find so fascinating and moving and troubling is that I am the last person on the face of the earth to seek out a confrontation. I have always hated confrontation and conflict of any kind, and if I were ever confronted with some sort of awful scenario in which I needed to step in this sort of way, I’m not sure from what deep crevices of my soul I would have to draw upon to find the courage and fortitude to confront a foe square in the face. Maybe that’s what draws me to this story – that part of me is crusty and old-fashioned like Sister Aloysius – and part of me is the timid, eager-to-please Sister James – and I find myself trying to figure out where I see myself in this story.
Anyway, the play is stupendous and you should see it if you ever have the chance . And if Tony Award Winner Cherry Jones ever returns to the role of Sister Aloysius . . . run, don’t walk, to see it. I count myself a lavishly blessed person for having seen her in the play three times – lavishly blessed and also rather dehydrated because of all the tears I shed.
And by the way, I love the film – although it does not make me cry such torrents of tears . . . but this most recent time I saw it, I probably cried more than at either of the previous showings. I think I’m finally managing to let go of Cherry Jones and accept the very different portrayal of the role by Meryl Streep. . . which works, albeit in a different way. And for all the little moments from the play which are not in the film or for the extras added that do or don’t work, I am finally getting better as taking this for what it is – a film adaption of my very favorite play – and I am finding room in my heart for both.
pictured above: A surreptitious picture of the movie screen from early in the film. That’s Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, about to silently read the riot act to a young boy sleeping during mass.