The power of Doubt
It’s 1964 in the New York Bronx, a time of controversy, a time of eminent change.
With the assassination of an archetypal American president only a year prior, and with the emerging civil rights movement, playwright and director John Patrick Shanley couldn’t have picked a better setting for Doubt, a piece highlighting the pursuit for truth in and amidst the epic transition of a country.
Shanley guides us through the hallways, the classrooms, and the offices of the mysterious St. Nicholas cathedral; his depictions allow us to catch a glimpse of the people behind the holy cloth, people who are caught in a battle between moral conviction and honest justice.
Father Flynn, a sincere and animated man, sees the time of change as an opportunity for the cathedral to distance itself from the harsh and severe principles of the church, while Sister Aloysius, the school’s disciplinarian, believes in its steadfast conviction.
Lost in the argument is Sister James, the exemplary of innocence, she is a character whose naivety is endearing while blinding.
Flynn takes compassion on St. Nicholas’ first black student, 12-year-old Donald Miller, and soon his private rendezvous with the boy in the rectory is seen as unseemly.
The mentor-student relationship is quickly evaluated by Aloysius who is determined to correct Flynn’s bad behaviour.
Shanley paints us a picture of inner turmoil, isolation and doubt. Watching Father Flynn dictate his pointed sermons, we feel like those sitting in the pews, deciding his innocence or guilt.
We see through the eyes of an African-American mother who turns a blind eye in order for her son to finish the school year and get into a good high school.
We identify with Aloysius’ moral certainty, James’ trust, and Flynn’s exasperation. Shanley’s peace resonates with any viewer; its power is its focus on human error, past or present.
We see Aloysius break her hard façade in the end with her admittance that she who is so dependent and justified in her certainty, has doubts, tearful and clutching her cross, she breaths, “I have doubts.”
Debuting in 2004, the play Doubt soon made its way onto the Broadway stage where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Tony, and the Pulitzer among many others.
On the silver screen the Academy-Award winning Meryl Streep executed Sister Aloysius’ obstinate nature with perfection. She portrays a woman who has such strong convictions she will not cease her investigation, no matter what the consequence.
Amy Adams, who plays Sister James, delivers a performance so sensitive and tender you feel like crying every time she crumbles, while the talented Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance leaves you constantly conflicted.
Playing Donald Miller’s mother, Viola Davis leaves us devastated as we witness her hopelessness.
The script translates itself well onto the big screen, as it lends itself to much movement. We see the undisclosed lives of the characters, Father Flynn smoking, drinking, eating steak, Sister James fearfully praying, and the moments of Sister Aloysius’ uncertainty.
The eye is entertained with the colors of fall, while the ear is enticed with the foreboding sound of hymnals and choirs.
Theatre Calgary took its stab on the play, a more comedic effort than the film, but one that was well orchestrated.
Nancy Palk, playing Sister Aloysius, stole the show. Palk demonstrated impeccable comedic timing while later showing the desolation of conviction.
A more charismatic and masculine portrayal of Father Flynn than the film was Trevor Leigh’s performance, while Tova Smith demonstrated Sister James’ fragility.
Either walking away from the film or the play, one quote resonates with the viewer, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful as certainty.”