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by Rob Kendt

©2006 Joan Marcus
Ron Eldard & Eileen Atkins in
Easily the most startling moment in the newly recast Doubt comes at the curtain call, when Eileen Atkins emerges and breaks into a warm, gratified smile. She deserves a break, and possibly so do we, because for 90 minutes she has just given us a Sister Aloysius as severe and imposing as a bird of prey, with an expression that ranges from cool, crisp, glowering disapproval to lemon-sucking distaste. If this school principal takes any joy in her work, or in the authority she brings to bear in her crusade against vice and modernity, we don't see it.

Sound too harsh? Actually, Atkins' holy terror fits perfectly within the prickly contours of John Patrick Shanley's deft, invigorating moral inquiry. Where Cherry Jones played Sister Aloysius as an exacting but benevolent taskmaster, a seasoned administrator with a faint but unmistakable nimbus of warmth, Atkins is unrelentingly wintry, and in a way that movingly suggests the spiritual cost to herself as much as to those in her warpath. "When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you move away from God, but in his service," she tells young Sister James, in the play's signature formulation. But this is not merely a smart axiom in Atkins' hands; she shows us an alienated woman who's taken several such steps away from divine grace and may no longer know the way back.

Atkins isn't the only reason this new-model Doubt works as well, or better, than that of the original cast. As Father Flynn, the friendly young priest Sister Aloysius labors to destroy, Ron Eldard is both cagey and charming, conveying his own arduous struggle with his faith as well as the priest's desperate defensive crouch when attacked. And there's one thing Eldard gets across that Brían F. O'Byrne, who previously brought a squirrelly earnestness to the role, couldn't: With his boyish haircut, Eldard looks very much like one of St. Anthony's pupils, all grown up, yet still subject to a humiliating dressing-down in the principal's office.

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It is in the part of Sister James, though, that this new cast has its strongest asset, and the play takes its biggest leap. While the fluttery Heather Goldenhersh made an endearing sidekick to Jones' tough cookie, she didn't begin to indicate the unsettling spiritual crisis of this young, idealistic nun, who
©2006 Joan Marcus
Jena Malone & Eileen Atkins in Doubt
whimperingly and vainly chafes under her elder's stern guidance. What Jena Malone does in the part is astonishing: She all but claims this as Sister James' story, moving from flustered ninny to budding authoritarian, just a few steps, and decades, away from Sister Aloysius. In a heartrending dialogue with Eldard's Flynn, we can almost see her shed her youth as she absorbs the blow of her first hard knock. By the end she's become, in her quiet way, a little pillar of strength, but we've seen the terrible price she's paid in hardening.

Adriane Lenox, as the mother of a boy Father Flynn has singled out for special attention, is the only remaining member of the original cast, and she noticeably steps up her game in her bruising face-off with Atkins' Sister Aloysius. Gripping at her purse and never quite settling into her chair, this besieged mother looks like she's drowning in the ice water of the old nun's stare, but she flails and fumes valiantly. This key encounter has a new resonance here, as it nudges another reasonable doubt about Sister Aloysius' campaign into the spotlight.

Coming off best in all this is Shanley's play, under Doug Hughes' sober, clear-eyed direction. With Doubt, the playwright has given us not a theorem, a whodunit or a star vehicle but a rangy moral drama that has ample room for new shadings, new insights, new revelations. It may be too early to make such pronouncements, but that looks awfully close to the description of a classic.

By John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Doug Hughes
Walter Kerr Theatre

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 2/14/2006 8:43:00 AM


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