Here's a telling NY Times article about the original Broadway production. The reviewer compares the play to PILLOWMAN which, according to this writer, set out to do nothing more than tell a diverting story. Nothing wrong with that, but the critic celebrates playwright Shanley for aiming to do more...
September 11 - October 12, 2008
Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Gabrielle Rose, Jonathon Young, Sasa Brown, Michèle Lonsdale Smith
Director Rachel Ditor
Tickets: Arts Club
A clash of wills and generations have unexpected, life-changing outcomes in this riveting play about the blurred line between gossip and truth. Winner! Best Play: 2005 Tony Award & Pulitzer Prize.
"Provocative. A gripping story of suspicion" - Variety
"So full of high drama that the audience with which I saw it gasped out loud a half-dozen times at its startling twists and turns" - The Wall Street Journal
"A breathtaking work... positively brilliant" - Entertainment Weekly
"Eloquent and provocative. A gripping mystery" - Time Out New York
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; Stories That Tell Vs. Storytelling
By Charles Isherwood
May 6, 2005
But is this a healthy ideal? Entertainment can, after all, aspire to do more than merely serve up narratives diverting enough to keep us hooked for a couple of hours. (Or in the case of the egregiously overwritten ''Pillowman,'' three.)
Mr. Shanley's ''Doubt'' presents a potent counterargument. It, too, has a gripping narrative, about accusations of sexual abuse leveled against a priest in a Bronx Roman Catholic school in 1964. But here storytelling is in service to a wider, more mature vision: ''Doubt'' is as deeply, if subtly, imbued with ideas of larger resonance as any play to be seen on Broadway in the last decade.
Mr. Shanley has an abiding belief that theater, despite its marginal status in popular culture (or, paradoxically, because of it), can illuminate ethical and spiritual questions that are of both immediate and eternal relevance.
This may strike a discordant note in today's self-conscious, irony-saturated cultural landscape, in which sincerity is automatically suspect. The idea that theater should say something, and not necessarily with a smirk, may seem quaintly old-fashioned. It harks back to the ethos of this country's great theatrical moralist, Arthur Miller, whose dramas grappled, sometimes bluntly, with moral questions of immediate currency.
But it derives from an essential truth about the artistic endeavor. Great writers are driven to write to give enduring form to their perceptions about human life and thought, not just because they have a particular knack for prose or dialogue, style or structure. (Although you wouldn't necessarily know this from reading lavishly praised, extravagantly self-conscious novels that get so much ink -- and use so much -- today.)
Good art does not, of course, deliver messages like moral telegrams. The scandal over charges of sexual abuse that has recently plagued the Catholic Church may appear to be Mr. Shanley's inspiration for ''Doubt,'' but the play, which is partly based on his experience at a similar school, is no hand-wringing tract about the abuse of power and religious hypocrisy.
Just before it opened off Broadway last fall, Mr. Shanley decided to append a parenthetical phrase to the play's pleasingly trenchant title: it is officially called ''Doubt, a Parable.'' Mr. Shanley wanted to prod audiences to look beyond the play's surfaces, to experience it not merely as a he-said-she-said drama with narrow topical currency, but also as a broader commentary on the state of the cultural and political discourse in America, and indeed on the dangerous human tendency to take refuge in certainty when the truth may be more complicated and elusive.
After the play won the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Shanley told The Times, ''People who have great certainty can be a force of good, but can also be incredibly destructive.'' And in an essay he wrote for The Los Angeles Times, which now serves as the introduction to the play's published text, he describes the poisonous cultural environment he was reacting against. ''We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict,'' he wrote.
Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), the nun who relentlessly pursues her suspicions about a priest's sexual misconduct, is the embodiment of the certainty that Mr. Shanley finds disquieting. With unshakable faith in her cause, she ignores all suggestions that the incident in question might involve a more nuanced or different truth. When another nun, who has come to question her role in the process, points to a paucity of actual evidence against the priest, Sister Aloysius replies fiercely, ''But I have my certainty.''
That certainty will have potentially devastating consequences: Sister Aloysius comes close to destroying a handful of lives, including, just possibly, her own. The play is a quiet indictment of the reverence for righteousness that has become an unhealthy hallmark of American culture in recent years.
And yet Mr. Shanley isn't just writing an op-ed piece in theatrical form. The play gets at a deeper, more universal truth. To be in doubt is not comfortable, as anyone can attest who has ever awaited lab results, fretted over a test score or stood vigil over a silent telephone, awaiting a call. It's a psychological itch, and you want to scratch your way to certainty. But it is often the first step on a path to greater spiritual or moral wisdom, a deeper compassion, a breaking free from constricting dogma.
The crisis that Sister Aloysius faces in the play's shattering final moment is one that everyone faces at one time or another: the discomfiting discovery that the world is not ordered as you thought it was.