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May 4, 2007

Non-doubting "Doubt"

Roy Meachum

Cherry Jones and Chris McGarry. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

It's hard to summon up any 2005 theatrical awards not won by John Patrick Shanley, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He earned them all with "Doubt."

Mr. Shanley wrote nothing less than a masterpiece treating the scandal of young boys' seduction by Roman Catholic priests.

Watching Tuesday's opening at Baltimore's Hippodrome, I sat in lap-jawed wonder at his play, the players and the production.

Director Doug Hughes has mounted the most powerful on-stage evening I've ever seen, going back to my childhood, numberless visits to New York, years in Europe and all those nights on Washington aisles.

I never try to be objective, of course; it's my opinion readers want to hear. And measuring Mr. Shanley's work is very much informed by all the years, here and in Rome, that I spent covering what we called in my youth "Holy Mother Church."

The spirit and the attitude of those pre-Vatican II years motivate and inform the play's plot and characters' reaction, although the setting is 1964. John F. Kennedy, the nation's first Catholic president, had been assassinated less than six months before the happenings on stage.

The greatest mystery of Mr. Shanley's opus was its failure to even mention the passing of John XXIII. The pope's valiant attempt to modernize (Risorgimento) Christianity's oldest daughter fell apart at his death. Paul VI lacked both the manner and the muscle to continue his predecessor's.

Risorgimento's most important goal was to modernize what was an organization with central control in the Vatican's curia. Subject only to Rome, the bishops were absolute rulers within their dominions, the dioceses. John XXIII and his chief adviser, the Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea, wanted authority shared equally by the priests and people. His death made the attempt moot.

The bleakest truth Mr. Shanley projected was the bishop's total control; this stays in abeyance what was one nun's attempt to protect her children from the threat of sexual exploitation.

As recent headlines show, children's sexual exploitation was very real. By going back 40 years "Doubt" can fictionally deal with the real thing, including how the hierarchy covered up for the priestly predators.

But Baltimore needs no fictional examples. The current archbishop restored to parish work a man accused of sexual exploitation by several young men. When further complaints came in, Cardinal William Keeler placed the Rev. Maurice Blackwell into a cushy interdenominational job. Only after he was shot by one of his accusers was the priest removed from the church payroll.

At least morally criminal was the way Mr. Keeler ignored Dontee Stokes, refusing comfort or restitution to Mr. Blackwell's victim, until Baltimore's sizable Catholic African Americans raised a storm. Mr. Stokes is black.

In a column at the time I suggested Cardinal Keeler should throw his red hat into the Inner Harbor and get out of town. With powerful Vatican backing he didn't. He's still in town and even more powerful since his mentor and protector became pope.

Cover-up and the difficulty in getting evidence of sexual abuse lie at the heart of Mr. Shanley's play. Considering the times, his proposition that a nun would accuse a priest nearly boggles belief. But the playwright finessed that objection by making Sister Aloysius a widow who brings to the quarrel a world knowledge, missing from most nuns.

Cherry Jones and Caroline Stefanie Clay (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

The Hippodrome's current production enjoys the tremendous strength of Cherry Jones who originated the part of the accusing nun. She is magnificent, as advertised by the Tony and many awards that came her way.

Every performance is unique, as I learned early in the critic game. Actors are not automatons who deliver their lines exactly the same, show after show.

At Tuesday's opening, Ms. Jones struck me as over-reaching. She boomed words that would have been more effective softer spoken, or at least softer than her interpretation that came across consistently as domineering. And that's not the same as dominating, which is what the role is supposed to do. These are mere quibbles, however, Cherry Jones is giving Baltimore audiences their full due.

Chris McGarry's accused priest fills the part as if he were to the role born, or at least produced by the same seminary. Frankly, I was surprised at how Lisa Joyce's performance stood up to Ms. Jones' overwhelming presence. Lisa Joyce, in a quiet way, turns in one helluva reading.

But as I said, in this instance the play is really the thing. John Patrick Shanley's presence up on the Hippodrome stage would have made me shout myself hoarse. This platform will have to do.

Bravo, author!!!!

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