One of the stunning moments in Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's diamond-hard, 90-minute drama at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is when Mrs. Muller, mother of 12-year-old Donald Muller, the only black kid in a parochial school in the Bronx, shocks the school's iron-minded principal, Sister Aloysius, by saying that the compassion of a Father Flynn toward the boy — the emotional and intellectual parenting Donald will never get from his own callous father — far outweighs any debatable sexual hanky-panky:
"One man is good to him. This priest. Puts out a hand to the boy. Does the man have his reasons? Yes. Everybody has their reasons. You have your reasons," says Mrs. Muller to Sister Aloysius. "But do I ask the man why he's good to my son? No. I don't care why. My son needs some man to care about him and see him through to where he wants to go. And thank God, this educated man with some kindness in him wants to do just that."
It's enough to take your breath away, and it does take Sister Aloysius's breath — Cherry Jones's breath — away. "For a short scene to come off the way this one does, and get the reaction it does. . . ," says Adriane Lenox, the Mrs. Muller of a show that, under the guidance of Doug Hughes, has brilliance all around: Jones, Lenox, Brían F. O'Byrne as charismatic Father Flynn and Heather Goldenhersh as young, idealistic Sister James, Donald Muller's homeroom teacher. This brilliance was amply rewarded last month as Lenox, Jones, Hughes and Shanley won Tony Awards for, respectively, Best Featured Actress in a Play, Best Leading Actress in a Play, Best Direction of a Play and Best Play.
No, Adriane Lenox wasn't educated by nuns — "I'm from the Baptist tradition in Memphis, Tennessee" — but yes, she is a mother herself, of 18-year-old college freshman Crystal. And, yes, in years past, "when my daughter's had a little scrape with other kids," Ms. Lenox has had to go in and see a teacher — but nothing like Sister Aloysius.
What does Lenox think in her own heart of hearts about Donald and Father Flynn and Mrs. Muller? "I think she's not giving a lot of thought about what may actually have happened. What she wants is for her kid to have better grades. We all want our kid to do better than us." And the sexual stuff? "I'm not saying anything actually happened. I think it's fine [Father Flynn's sheltering of the boy]. Complicated, but fine. You know, it's — what does she say? — it's not black and white." Okay. But in another sense it is black and white, isn't it?
Silence. Then, from the woman who won awards for her three supporting roles in Dinah Was, a show about a powerhouse black songstress who refused to knuckle under to white bigotry: "There's always circumstances. There's always baggage."
At which point, Heather Goldenhersh, a Tony nominee for her role of Sister James, late and breathless, bursts into the room to take part in the interview. She, too, was not educated by nuns, she says, "but my mother was, and tells horror stories."
"Sure, I've known some people like that," says Lenox of Sister Aloysius, that pillar of absolute certitude.
"The only person of certainties in my own family," says young Ms. Goldenhersh, "is an uncle who's a pastor — a non-denominational pastor — and really believes in Christ. I had a period of years when I strongly believed in what he was saying. Me? I'm half-Jewish by adoption on my father's side and Greek Orthodox on my mother's side."
SISTER ALOYSIUS: The best teachers do not perform, they cause the students to perform.
SISTER JAMES: Do I perform?
SISTER ALOYSIUS: As if on a Broadway stage.
And here you are, performing eight times a week on a Broadway stage.
"I imagine if I were in the audience I would laugh at that line," Goldenhersh says. "I think Sister James is horrified at the self-centered possibility of taking center stage. But I think it's charming to have the older teacher say what she does."
Lenox picks up the thread. "I just went back home for a visit to my church in Memphis. Some people there said, ‘Adriane, we just knew you were going to do this [go onstage] when you did this, did that, in the Christmas pageants here.'"
Goldenhersh, mock-gravely: "Were you a bit of a ham, Adriane?" Then, to their interviewer: "Adriane plays a serious part, but she's the funniest woman I've ever met."
Lenox's mother has just died a few days earlier. She and her husband had a business cleaning offices and banks in Memphis.
"My mother was a jewelry designer and an actress who was never near a stage," says Goldenhersh. "She died in December. She was goofy. I'm a watered-down version of her. My father? He sells vintage clothes to Japan. I started acting in grade school in St. Louis. I can't sing to save my life."
How old are you, anyway?
"Oh, God," — with a Sarah Bernhardt sigh — "people think I'm about 26."
Sister James is full of doubts. How about the actress who plays her?
"Oh yeah. I really relate to my character. There've been periods in my life that were riddled with uncertainty. Those human, existential rough passages. But I've just taken my very own first apartment, in Greenwich Village."
And you, Ms. Lenox? Doubts?
"Of course. Reviews and everything that make you or break you, but in the long run don't have anything to do with who you are and where you're going."
"Amen!" says Sister James, fervently.
"Flying high in April, shot down in May," says Mrs. Muller. "Know what I mean?"
Without a doubt.