Dilemmas of suspicion and 'Doubt'

Linda Hunt stars in a clerical whodunit.

By Rob Kendt
Special to The Times

March 14, 2005

It was an archetypal story, an urban legend that spawned a thousand and one tasteless jokes, even before it and other tales scorched national headlines: The local priest, pent up by impossible vows of celibacy, takes an unpastorly interest in an altar boy or two.

There was nothing innocent about such whisperings, whether substantive or spurious. But in the cold light of the abuse scandals that have recently rocked the Catholic Church, it is hard to recall how tenuous and tendentious the truth of such intimations once seemed.

The best thing about John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," now in a perfunctory but still powerful production at the Pasadena Playhouse, is that it preserves some of the pre-scandal uncertainty around the issue, the better to chew on meaty spiritual dilemmas. Set in 1964 at a Bronx church school, the play pits a shrewd principal, Sister Aloysius (Linda Hunt), against an idealistic young priest, Father Flynn (Jonathan Cake), whom she suspects of pedophilia.

Her reluctant deputy in targeting Flynn is the easily flustered Sister James (Mandy Freund), a young teacher with much to learn. Not willing to join Sister Aloysius' crusade is Mrs. Muller (Patrice Pitman Quinn), whose 12-year-old son, as she sees it, may be all the better for Father Flynn's special attention.

"Sometimes things aren't black and white," Mrs. Muller tells Sister Aloysius in their one tense interview. The line has an extra shading, given that her newly enrolled son is the school's first African American student.

In fact, this one loaded scene offers a bracing reality check on the internecine squabble between nun and priest; with her neat suit, pressed smile and slightly rattled respectfulness, Mrs. Muller cracks a window on the tough, compromised world outside the school's red-bricked cloisters. This glimpse of unimagined implications shames Sister Aloysius' unbending rectitude, if only for a moment.

The scene has added weight in part because the excellent Pitman Quinn is the only performer onstage who gives the play's knotty complexities their full due. The rest, under director Claudia Weill, come off like figures in a ponderous clerical whodunit rather than as the deeply conflicted souls Shanley sets on a messy, even tragic collision course.

As the conflicted priest, the strapping Cake labors nobly under the unplayable directive to seem at once guilty and unjustly accused. In a pair of sermons, and in a pleading tête-à-tête with Sister James, he effectively embodies the kind of "familiar" and "welcoming" clergy he advocates, against which is poised Sister Aloysius' authoritarian clarity. As the naive young nun whose kind instincts are gradually infected by Sister Aloysius' skepticism, Freund is touching but remote.

These two might loom larger if they had more to play off of. Instead they're faced with Hunt's underachieving performance as Sister Aloysius. An effortlessly ingratiating pixie, Hunt delightfully throws away the sister's gruff pronouncements and musters a dry poker face in interrogation mode. Her expressions of distaste — watch for her sour recoil at the word "fun" — are also matter-of-factly right on.

But Hunt offers more flint than steel, and there's a whiff of the self-conscious star turn about her presence; she shamelessly plays many of her punch lines to the house, as if she were in a light comedy.

This deficit of gravitas doesn't just cheat the play of significance; it warps it in problematic ways. For Sister Aloysius is a rare and bold creation of Shanley's — an unapologetically illiberal heroine who personifies Jesus' famous pronouncement, in Matthew's Gospel, "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Sister Aloysius sees herself as just such a truth-divining instrument, a Christian shepherd who protects her flock not by cuddling them but by chasing down the wolves that would prey on them.

The play's project is to test the limits of her stewardship. How can she be so sure she's got a wolf in her sights? And can such cruel certainty really be kindness? Father Flynn, with his talk of "reaching out" in love, gets plenty of sympathetic speeches to cast doubt on the sister's suspicions — indeed, to hold up doubt itself as a virtue. Sister James never warms to her superior's bleak worldview, and there is the aforementioned standoff with the child's mother.

But while these challenges to Sister Aloysius' convictions give Shanley's play its distinctive sophistication — it is all to its credit that "Doubt" is no angry, one-sided screed against priestly abuse and hierarchical cover-up — they shouldn't overwhelm our appreciation for Sister Aloysius' unique position. She has learned to be fierce and wily within a male hierarchy that's at best oblivious to its faults.

And she has a sense of spiritual sacrifice that would be mere self-justification if it weren't so unsentimental. "When you take a step to address a wrongdoing," she tells Sister James, "you are taking a step away from God, but in His service."

Hunt's Sister Aloysius crumbles too easily, and her single-mindedness starts to look more and more like what Father Flynn brands "intolerance." Surely Shanley didn't mean to shift the entire burden of proof onto the priest's main accuser. More important, the cosmic moral quandary at his play's center is closer to "How do we presume to judge and punish evil?" than to "Did or didn't something nasty happen in the rectory?"

Realism prevails in Gary L. Wissmann's rotating set and Jeremy Pivnick's wintry lighting, and Steven Cahill provides sobering musical transitions. Weill's production may be more dubious than divine, but Shanley's play retains the glow of an inspired text.


Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: April 10

Price: $37 to $53

Contact: (626) 356-7529 or

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Linda Hunt...Sister Aloysius

Jonathan Cake...Father Flynn

Mandy Freund...Sister James

Patrice Pitman Quinn...Mrs. Muller

By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Claudia Weill. Sets by Gary L. Wissmann. Costumes by Alex Jaeger. Lighting by Jeremy Pivnick. Production stage manager Anna Belle Gilbert.