“Doubt: A Parable” at Todd Haimes Theatre, New York

Glenda Frank on Broadway
24 March 2024

“Sex.” “Scandal”. These words snag our attention. Other words stimulate the imagination – like “doubt.” And “doubt” is part of the title of John Patrick Shanley’s brilliant 2004 Tony-award-winning play (made into a movie in 2008) and now powerfully revived at the Todd Haimes Theatre.


Amy Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.


The story, set in a Bronx parochial school, only alludes to the many instances of sexual abuse of boys that rocked the Catholic Church, but the theme is ever-present. At the heart of the drama is the conflict between a priest who values compassion above punishment and the school principal who believes that tireless vigilance is the only way to guide children. The power of Doubt, A Parable lies in how we believe and disbelieve all at once, along with all the characters. We are actively engaged.

The play opens with Father Brendan Flynn (Liev Schreiber) in church, discussing his latest idea for a sermon about doubt. Then the woven scrim material lifts (Donald Rockwell, sets) and we are behind the public scenes, in the office of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Amy Ryan), the principal. As she interrogates Sister James (Zoe Kazan), a young teacher, the word “doubt” takes on a less spiritual and more sinister meaning.

Director Scott Ellis integrates the theatre mechanics into the dramatic. We do not enter the principal’s office. It is thrust into our vision, slipping from back to centre stage as though we had suddenly found ourselves under the cold, accusing eye of the head of the school. We become Sister James as she is chastised for enjoying her job and liking the students. But even while we are squirming, it’s hard not to admire Sister Aloysius as she demands nothing less than total dedication to the class. And she seems to know every detail of the many students in her charge. She is also relentless in her determination to bring down the man she sees as a pedophile. Although our sympathies lie with the priest, we wonder if she is right.

Mrs. Muller (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) offers another perspective that both clarifies and confuses the priest’s relationship with her son, an eighth-grade transfer who will graduate to high school in a few months. He is the first black student in a school divided into Irish and Italian groups. She had seen him bullied and attacked at his previous school. His father, suspecting the boy might be gay, is brutal to him. To her St. Nicholas is a haven, and when Sister Aloysius summarily calls her into the office, she is terrified that they will expel the boy for drinking altar wine. If the priest takes an interest in supporting her boy, that’s all that matters to her – inappropriate or not. He needs someone to be kind to him and it’s only for a few more months, she tells the principal. The scales keep tipping.

Like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Doubt has become an instant classic. This production is fascinating for both its strengths and flaws. Schreiber gives a charismatic performance and I wouldn’t have sacrificed a minute of it. But he is miscast; an older actor in a young man’s role. Usually that wouldn’t bother me, but part of the genius of the play is not just how Shanley pitted male against female (which Ellis highlights in his blocking) but also the young – a humanistic priest and nun – against the older, jaded and doctrinaire – this being the school principal. But with an older Father Flynn, who has been moved from parish to parish, Sister Aloysius’s suspicions are allowed more weight. His promotion after complaining about the principal to the bishop becomes a coda on the secondary status of women in the Church as well as a suspicion that the priest is part of the network of genial miscreants.

Amy Ryan was a late replacement for Tyne Daly so she may still be feeling out the role. She has big shoes to fill – those of Cherry Jones and Meryl Streep. Ryan offers few of the nuances needed to explore the terrible position Sister Aloysius finds herself in – a subordinate who is not even allowed to talk to a male alone and who is charged with the protection of the children against a male network. Instead of showing glimmers of an unsung hero, she seems unhinged, at times the villain.

Zoe Kazan, as the obedient but personally conflicted young nun, turns in a beautifully nuanced performance, juggling conflicting emotions with a seamless grace. And kudos to Bernstine, who not only brings home a fully developed portrayal but also had me longing for more.