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STAGE REVIEW

Power, abuse, truth in 'Doubt'

Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius and Chris McGarry as Father Flynn in John Patrick Shanley's prizewinning drama "Doubt." (CRAIG SCHWARTZ)

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

"Truth tends to make a bad sermon," says the accused priest in John Patrick Shanley's achingly taut "Doubt." "It's very confusing and has no clear conclusion."

That's exactly what makes "Doubt," which opened Tuesday night at the Colonial Theatre, such a fine play. It's not confusing, exactly; it's just astonishingly capable of persuading you utterly of one side of its argument -- and then, not five minutes later, making you even more certain of the opposite conclusion.

This is, of course, exactly what Shanley was hoping for when he wrote this prizewinning drama about a steely nun and her suspicions of a priest: to make us understand, with absolute clarity, that nothing is absolutely clear. The conclusions we reach about what the priest did or didn't do with a troubled 12-year-old boy in a 1964 parochial school come more from our own hearts than from the facts before us. That's inevitable, perhaps -- but Shanley wants us to remember that it can also be dangerous.

This is making "Doubt" sound like a sermon, though, and in its remarkably lean and supple 90 minutes of drama leavened by occasional humor, it reveals itself to be anything but that. For Shanley doesn't just bundle up a bunch of ideas and march them onstage disguised as characters; he creates real people -- people who take three lumps of sugar or secretly listen to a confiscated radio. And, as you may have heard, Cherry Jones takes her character as written and makes her even more complicated, difficult, and infinitely interesting.

As Jones plays her, Sister Aloysius has a frail but seemingly impenetrable crust of righteousness that covers -- well, who knows exactly what it covers? "Where is your compassion?" the accused Father Flynn cries at one point. "Nowhere you can get at," she snaps. Somehow Jones makes us feel, instantly, both the utter lack of sympathy Aloysius feels at that moment and the real, if invisible, compassion that glows somewhere deep in her soul.

Jones gives Aloysius a grating voice and a stiff walk; she has said she pictures the character as having osteoporosis, and the way she holds her body conveys that sense of fragility pulling itself together to be strong. A lesser performer might've taken a name like "Aloysius" and run with it, giving us yet another caricature of a ramrod-straight, knuckle-rapping nun. The kind of rigor Jones creates is far more interesting.

Reprising her award-winning Off-Broadway and Broadway performance for this national tour, which also re-creates the Broadway set and costumes more or less intact, Jones is working in excellent company. Chris McGarry gives Father Flynn an almost boyish eagerness to open the church to new ideas -- and a less charming ability to wield the authority of the priesthood like a club when he feels threatened. Shanley understands, and McGarry underscores, the ugly lust for power and control that lies at the heart of the abuse scandal.

As the naive and questioning young Sister James, Lisa Joyce wavers perilously between these two strong poles. Her doubts mirror and amplify our own, and Joyce gives them every shading they need. Caroline Stefanie Clay, meanwhile, brings a deeply appropriate weariness and pragmatic despair to her one scene as the (possible) abuse victim's mother. If the nuns and priest are warring, in part, over principles, Clay's Mrs. Muller brings us back to earth: All she wants is for her son to survive, and because he's the school's first black student and is regularly beaten by her husband, she knows exactly how hard that might be.

In a line that stops just short of making Shanley's metaphors too transparent, Mrs. Muller tells Sister Aloysius, "Sometimes things aren't black and white."

"And sometimes they are," Aloysius responds.

The paradox, and the wonder, of this play is that it leaves us certain both statements are true.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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