To listen to the breezy banter of Brían F. O'Byrne and Cherry Jones backstage at the Walter Kerr Theatre, it's difficult to imagine the intensity they bring to their roles of a possible pedophile priest and his accuser in John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, Doubt. Yet watching these two transform themselves onstage, it's clear that one is in the presence of two remarkable actors who not only love what they do but live to do it. If their challenge in the Doug Hughes-directed Doubt is to plant total uncertainty, roil and divide audiences, they're doing their job well.
"From the second the house lights dim," beams Jones, "audiences tell us they're completely engaged. The oddest thing, though, is that they feel the play is theirs, and if there's a false moment they'd feel betrayed."
"They don't talk about us — the actors," marvels O'Byrne. "The play becomes a very personal thing, and they talk about the experience. It's fascinating entering into a dialogue about what we've just created."
"Nothing gets better than that for an actor," says Jones. "When audiences talk about the play and not the performances, it's the best review of all." Set in 1964, Doubt is the disturbing account of the confrontation that occurs when Sister Aloysius — a strong-willed nun and principal of a grammar school in the Bronx — accuses affable, street-wise Father Flynn of behaving inappropriately with a student. "Aloysius is a strong character," observes Jones. "When it comes to her suspicions, she has no doubt. Whatever Aloysius, the moralist, feels about Flynn, you know that, bottom line, it comes from a compassionate heart."
Yet uncertainty is also at the heart of the drama and, says Jones, "uncertainty is the gift of the wise. What makes the play powerful," she explains, is that it reflects "the condensation of the country, the prevailing attitudes on absolutism. The Left get tired of spewing their venom at Bush and spew at [Sister Aloysius]. The more conservative, who think that Bush hung the moon, spew theirs at the humanist priest."
As Jones and O'Byrne have discovered, audiences are quite divided about Flynn's guilt and Aloysius's determination to condemn him.
"We've done these silly polls," says O'Byrne, "where we ask, 'Did you believe Father Flynn? Did you believe Sister Aloysius, or do you have doubt?'" What's most intriguing, notes Jones, "is that the worst thing people who agreed with Aloysius will say is 'Father Flynn's guilty.' But those who think I'm guilty will say, 'She's despicable!' She's worse than a pedophile!"
Growing up Methodist in Tennessee, the Catholic Church, laughs Jones, was the most exotic thing in town. She had Catholic friends and heard stories about the nuns. "Their fiefdom was the school system. They were trained to be field marshals: discipline, order, rigidity. Click, you kneel. Click, you stand!"
With that in mind, she found unexpected humor to mine in Doubt. "A friend said she was doing a funny play this season. Another boasted she was doing a serious one. I replied, 'I'm doing a play that's funny and serious!'"
Jones always wanted to act. She's been at her craft — "anytime, anywhere I can" — since 1978. However, she's been absent from the New York stage since summer 2003 and her acclaimed performance Off-Broadway in Flesh and Blood (also directed by Hughes).
Roles in such films as "The Perfect Storm," "Signs" and "Oceans 12" had fans worried she'd be lost in LaLaLand. "No, no, no!" she says. "I never expected Hollywood to come calling." Even after winning a Best Actress Tony Award for The Heiress in 1995? "Not many women my age are into their [Hollywood's] mindset. But I have to say, it's fun — as long as you know you've got something to come home to."
The Irish-born O'Byrne seems to have come full circle. One of his first U.S. jobs was playing a priest on a sitcom. Before his role as a pedophile serial killer in Frozen (for which he won the Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Play in 2004), he appeared onstage in Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West. That work brought him to Clint Eastwood's attention and got him cast as the no-nonsense priest in this year's Oscar-winning Best Picture, "Million Dollar Baby."
O'Byrne and Jones say theatre is their primary focus and that Doubt has been a most rewarding experience. "It goes by so fast you don't realize it's 90 minutes," Jones says. "It's so much fun. There's not a single scene where you go, 'I hope this goes well' or 'I can't wait to get past this.'"
"It's a live thing," adds O'Byrne, "and you feel yourself moving right along. Because of this, you feel you have to work a bit harder. You're never offstage long and you're constantly building emotion and intensity."
The experience has formed a strong bond between the actors. "We've come to know each other well," says he. "Yeah," says she, "and we're going to get to know each other a lot better."
He laughs, "You mean there's more?"