- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

Anyone worried that the decline of Western civilization is in direct proportion to our obsession with Anna Nicole’s DNA or “American Idol” hopeful Lakisha Jones’ hometown allegiance needs only to mosey on down to the National Theatre, where thousands of people sit in rapt silence, leaning forward in their seats to watch a straight dramatic play.

There are no tricks — besides great, brave writing — to John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Doubt.”

The show’s star, the matchless Cherry Jones, who brings a luminous physical solidity to her stage and screen roles, is nearly unrecognizable in horn-rimmed glasses, a billowy nun’s habit and a stiff black bonnet clamped on her head like a helmet. As Sister Aloysius, a 60-ish Catholic school principal circa 1964 (when nuns were not your pals but forbidding, dark-robed emissaries from the Vatican), Miss Jones is frail in body and ironclad in mind.

Her back may be stooped, but her brain is as sharp and honed as a dart. Sister Aloysius’ thinking is as black and white as her habit. In Mr. Shanley’s deft, incisive script — which will give the heebie-jeebies to survivors of Catholic school — Sister Aloysius opines that adolescent boys are made of “soot and tar-paper” and are always one hormone away from sinning.

Ballpoint pens are the personification of laziness and the decline of standards. The holiday song “Frosty the Snowman” is a symbol of pagan necromancy. Teachers and spiritual leaders should be formidable protectors, not teddy bears with rosaries.

She fixes her gimlet eye on Father Flynn (Chris McGarry, who, although likable, lacks the slippery charm of Brian F. O’Byrne, originator of the part on Broadway), the parish’s magnetic priest who is trying to make St. Nicholas more accessible to the community.

That’s not the issue as much as she suspects he may be sexually abusing one of the male students. She has no absolute proof, just the resoluteness of her mind and a burning, shockingly feral desire to protect the children at all costs.

The religious zeal with which she pursues Father Flynn — while adhering to the strict patriarchal constraints of the system — shakes the faith and peace of a young nun, Sister James (the superb Lisa Joyce, who gives innocence quicksilver gradations). Sister Aloysius does not escape unscathed either. Her single-minded pursuit has cost her beloved certainty.

With her gravelly, guttural voice and airtight elucidation, Miss Jones is magnificent as Sister Aloysius, giving us a character ruthless and terrifying, but also possessing a wicked sense of humor about herself. In another era, Sister Aloysius would have made a great warrior, as glimpsed in the junkyard dog showdowns with Father Flynn, who, while blustery and manipulative, is no match for the nun.

Her tenacity is also revealed in a shattering conversation with the male student’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Duke Ellington School of the Arts alumna Caroline Stefanie Clay, who plays the short scene with fire and wrenching cool-headedness), in which Sister Aloysius realizes just how far some people are willing to go to provide their children with better chances in life.

If you’re looking for answers or verdicts, “Doubt” is not the play for you. Mr. Shanley doesn’t tell you who’s right and who’s wrong. Rather, he suggests that surety is a sham, that having doubts makes you a wise — not a weak — person.

The playwright asks: In our relentless drive to render everything in black and white, how many compromises do we make and how often do we quell those little voices, those prickles of conscience that we brush off as insecurity or fear?

****

WHAT: “Doubt,” by John Patrick Shanley

WHERE: National Theatre, 13th and E streets Northwest

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 25.

TICKETS: $38.75 to $78.75

PHONE: 800/447-7400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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