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Fundamentally Free

René Descartes, in his Principles of Philosophy (1644) states “We experience within ourselves a certain freedom, which enables us always to abstain from believing anything which is not obviously certain and established.” For him, doubt was man’s fundamental freedom. I first learned of this idea in my college philosophy classes, and remembered it again when I became a father, for my daughter’s first words and acts seemed to reinforce this concept of freedom. She refused to cooperate and said “No” almost before she could say anything else. (Right after “No” came “Why?,” leading me to believe that philosophers were definitely engaged in some elemental, although possibly more childlike than generally recognized, kind of activity).

Descartes as a rationalist was engaged in a search for knowledge that necessarily challenged the Roman Catholic Church as the sole source of truth in scientific and other matters. Yet he, like many other seminal Enlightenment figures, was at pains to reconcile his work with Church doctrine, for reasons of personal faith as well as basic survival (look what happened to Galileo -- the Church finally admitted he was right, what, just last year?). I’m sure he had his doubts about doubting.

John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” brings the full weight of the existential dilemma of the existence of God in every line, every gesture, every scene. The play opens with Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) delivering a sermon that begins “What do you do when you’re not sure?,” setting up the ineluctable good-cop-bad-cop logic that is the Church’s intellectual lifeblood. When bad things happen to good people, how can they believe in the existence of a benevolent God? And how can we answer them and keep them from leaving the flock? What do we do when they are poisoned by doubt? And how do we handle it when our soldiers of Christ, our priests and bishops and nuns and Mother Superiors are beset with doubt?

We are then introduced to the character of Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) -- at first glance a gruff martinet of a nun who is the principal of the Boston parish school where the play is set. She has summoned to her tidy, grim office Sister Jones (Lisa Joyce), the very picture of an innocent young sister devoted to teaching but with her head somewhat in the clouds. The two characters are perfectly matched with opposing affect -- young versus old, optimist versus cynic, idealist versus realist. Sister Aloysius grills her tender charge on the state of her class, countering her bewildered answers with concise, accurate observations on human behavior and the specific machinations of the interpersonal and political power structure of the parish.

Despite her stern forcefulness, she displays a quite droll sense of humor, a complete knowledge of every student and teacher, and ultimately emerges as a committed and caring custodian of the school. Endowed with a powerful forensic curiosity, she reminds us of Detective Colombo, always asking questions in his disarming way, with his “…just one more thing…” She’s a widower, and is thus revealed as a Sister perhaps more world-wise than most. She takes Sister Jones under her wing, and with lines like “satisfaction is a vice,” instills the seeds of, well, doubt in her. It’s fascinating to see how this doubt pervades and transforms Sister James’ character.

The “…just one more thing…” question turns up the trump card in the play -- a vague insinuation of improper behavior on the part of the pious, manly (except for his strange habit of keeping his fingernails long) Father Flynn towards a student, as it happens, the only black student in the school. Sister Aloysius skillfully draws the disturbing details out of Sister James, who has witnessed the transgression. Suddenly you realize that the play is also about the Church’s pervasive moral decay around the issue of pedophile priests, which just doesn’t seem to want to go away. There’s a reason to doubt if there ever was one.

On the pretext of discussing the Christmas play, Sister Aloysius convenes a meeting with Father Flynn and Sister Jones with the intent of confronting him with the evidence of his misbehavior. Predictably, Father Flynn pulls rank and threatens Sister Aloysius in a spectacular display of poisonous patriarchal condescension. The two engage in a raw, gloves-off power struggle which fills the theater with tension. Sister Aloysius, battered but not giving an inch, digs in like a pit bull, makes Father Flynn squirm, and plays her final hand. The shaken priest finally breaks down and, without exactly admitting his crime, begs for mercy. “Where is your compassion?” he implores Sister Aloysius. “Nowhere you can get to it,” she replies.

Father Flynn begins a campaign to win over the trust of Sister Jones, whose very faith in humanity has been shaken to the core. She’s not sure who to believe anymore. The vibrant young priest who all the boys seem to love so much is capable of…that? It’s unthinkable. Surely Sister Aloysius, with her cold, unfeeling respect for rules and order, has it all wrong. Father Flynn finally gets her to admit that she believes him, but it’s too late -- other forces have been put into play, and Father Flynn’s past catches up with him.

The fourth actor in this supremely balanced quartet plays just one scene, but it’s one of the most exquisitely delivered pieces of theater I’ve seen. Mrs. Muller, the mother of the black student who has had to resign from altar duty as a result of his encounter with Father Flynn, is summoned to Sister Aloysius’ office. Elegantly appointed in understated silk suit, pillbox hat and heels, Adriane Lenox as Mrs. Muller perfectly captures the 70s urban middle class black mother who wants nothing more than for her son to have a leg up in life.

Confronted with the evidence of Father Flynn’s behavior, she wants to suppress the incident for fear of unjustly calling more attention and trouble upon her unfortunate son. Sister Aloysius will have none of it -- she’s out to roust the viper from the nest, and while she realizes what this means for the Muller boy and his family and has compassion for them, she won’t be swayed. Mrs. Muller, brought face to face with a conflict she want’s no part of, heartbreakingly declares “You accept what you gotta accept…” She’s willing to allow her son to suffer at the hands of Father Flynn if it means he can get ahead, and behind this is the unspoken weight of all she and her ancestors had to suffer in order to survive.

The four actors in “Doubt” present a brilliantly conceived, flawlessly directed, perfectly delivered piece of drama that is like a Beethoven string quartet in the interaction between the characters. The speed and ease at which we are brought face to face with doubt is breathtaking, and the way we continue to be engaged with the action at hand while grappling with the fundamental questions of existence is simply virtuosic.

It would be easy to do a play that focused more on the Church’s pedophile priest problem. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed and corrected, and it has the potential to force some significant change in the Church, although I’m not holding my breath on that one. “Doubt” is about this issue, but it puts it in the context of the real men and women who make up the Church- the dedicated and often conflicted people who all must deal with their own doubt at some point. The play brilliantly exposes the inherent power struggle between different levels of Church hierarchy, and ultimately between the sexes. Women, even the most dedicated, capable, and caring, clearly have less power than men.

“Doubt” draws us into its net, eliciting our sympathy for the vivacious and clearly dedicated teacher Father Flynn, and for the crestfallen Sister Jones, whose disillusionment hits her particularly hard. Has Sister Aloysius gone too far? How could a nice priest like Father Flynn be capable of such a thing? How can we lose our faith in the inherent goodness of human nature? The play’s resolution does nothing to allay our doubts, other than to affirm that they will always be there. Father Flynn’s opening sermon contains a curiously prescient line: “Doubt can be as powerful and sustainable as certainty.” It can also make us free.

at Golden Gate Theater
runs through December 3
tickets: $40-80