It's all too rare these days for a major Broadway star to headline a national tour in a role she created in New York. But when John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize–winning Doubt plays this month in San Francisco, Sister Aloysius will once again be played by Cherry Jones, who won a Tony Award for a performance critics called "extraordinary," "brilliant" and "incomparable."
"Audiences lose their minds over this play," says Jones, who is committed to the tour for six months, "and the thought of getting to introduce Doubt all across the country is exciting to me." Jones will be joined by Chris McGarry as Father Flynn, Lisa Joyce as Sister James, and Adriane Lenox, from the Broadway cast, re-creating her role as Mrs. Muller. The play is again directed by Tony Award winner Doug Hughes.
Doubt takes place in 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx, where the rigidly resolute Sister Aloysius suspects with unwavering certainty that Father Flynn is molesting one of the students. But she is unsure what to do about her suspicions, convinced that the church will readily favor the explanation of a priest over the doubts of a nun. What makes the play so compelling is that Shanley refuses to take sides with either of the characters, leaving it to the viewer to make up his or her own mind as to the innocence or guilt of the priest.
"It's amazing that he's created four characters in a terrible dilemma," says Jones. "The young nun is in a dilemma: Who does she believe? The mother is in a dilemma: How does she proceed? The priest is in a dilemma, and Sister Aloysius is in a dilemma. It's so powerful. Doug Hughes said, ‘There's not one word in this play that doesn't add to the tension.' He also said that in thinking of how to direct the play when he first read it, he actually thought, 'How would Hitchcock direct it?' Because it's that thrilling." Jones, like her character, has no doubt about the priest's guilt. "I absolutely have to share her certainty," she says. "I was able to do that by giving myself a cracking good back story. Also, I understand the dilemma of a woman who doesn't live in a democracy and cannot look to the hierarchy of her institution to fully investigate and right the wrong, should they determine that there has been a wrong. In a way, the corruption of her institution is forcing her to become a vigilante. Another way you can look at the play is as an essay on the trickle-down effects of corruption on an institution."
Speaking on just the second day of rehearsal, Jones says she is considering a somewhat different approach to Sister Aloysius this time around. "My inclination right now is to be more naturalistic than I was before," Jones says. "She's just as certain, but less monolithic, less heightened. Maybe it's just because I'm thinking it through and trying to rid myself of any tired line readings from the Broadway run. Maybe that's making it seem more naturalistic to me right now."
Getting into Sister Aloysius's costume again will also have a profound effect on Jones's performance. "I think the glasses, the bonnet and the habit give me my whole character," she says. "Today we were sitting around the table at rehearsal, and I felt completely nude. I felt I had no character. The costume gives her this wonderful rigidity. The Sisters of Charity had a cape over their smocks, and I hide my hands and fold my arms underneath that cape, which makes me look impenetrable. It's the most freeing costume in the world."