With the 2005 publication of the play Doubt, author John Patrick Shanley included a forward not only about the play itself, but about the cultural climate he was seeing—one he called a “courtroom culture,” of extreme confrontation and judgment. Almost two decades later, that sentiment seems to still hold true. Public discourse is often public discord.
Doubt will see its first Broadway revival this season in a new Roundabout Theatre production starring Tyne Daly, Zoe Kazan, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and Liev Schreiber. In the play, which begins previews February 2, Daly and Kazan are Catholic school nuns who suspect the parish priest (Schreiber) of an inappropriate relationship with a student. Bernstine plays the boy’s mother.
When approached with the project, Daly was at first uncertain if the 20-year-old play would still hold relevancy. “And I read it and thought, ‘This is a good play,’” she says emphatically. “And then the next day—now I’m big on signs and portents, which probably means I’m not a person of faith—the New York Times had a double page spread about the rot at the center of Baltimore diocese.” Then shortly after that, the New Orleans archdiocese announced they would be closing several parishes due to financial ruin brought on by sexual abuse lawsuits. “Certainly, this thing has not gone away,” says Daly. “So, we’re going to tell the story again. This one deserves telling.”
Kazan, who first referred to Shanley’s 2005 essay when speaking on what kinds of discussions the play ushers, points out a difference she sees in that "courtroom culture," though, saying, “How we talk about how people should be held to account has really changed. In some ways it feels more comfortable now than it did then. And we’re talking a lot more about differences in perspective than in differences of opinion.”
And that's the big challenge for the three women characters in the play. How can they hold Father Flynn accountable?
While Sister Aloysius and Sister James struggle first between suspicion and certainty of Flynn’s misdeeds, then with what actions they should take, Mrs. Muller seems more immediately sure of what should be done. And it is a gut-wrenching choice on her part, in one of the plays more devastating scenes. “It sounds so cliché,” says Bernstine. “But it’s just a mother’s love—a mother fighting for her child’s life and having to make complicated decisions.”
These three women are always driving the play forward, always pushing the action, but they are never the ones in power. It's ironic but it's also true to life. “Mrs. Muller says, ‘You’re not going to go against a man in a robe and win,’” says Bernstine. Kazan agrees, pointing to a line early in the play: “The system is designed to protect him."
At the time of this interview, this cast is only two days into rehearsal, so these thoughts are all young. In fact, rehearsals began January 4, which happened to be the Feast Day of Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was the founder of the Sisters of Charity. ("Talk about signs and portents!" says Daly, eyebrows raised.) The show's creative team has been working closely with the Sisters of Charity in the Bronx, the sect specifically written about in Doubt by Shanley, who grew up a Catholic school boy in their Bronx neighborhood.
There is a short conversation about faith as the women are styled for the photoshoot. It's fun watching them get to know each other a little and talk about the knowledge and backgrounds they are bringing to the play.
Bernstine was raised Catholic in Washington, D.C. She still considers herself a faithful person, but no longer practices. At Christmas-time, she attended Mass with her mother, "It was such a gift, for both of us," she shares. "There is definitely a higher power that guides me from day to day."
Kazan was not raised with organized religion, but she's curious about it. "I've always thought...it's like, what does an ant know about the size of the universe? And what's to say I'm not an ant to the universe? I just think I'm very small. And the universe is very big," she says. "Tyne and I were joking earlier, we were both raised in the religion of theatre. And I spent a lot of time in the library. Those are the places I went to look for something bigger than me."
Tyne jumps in, "Oh, there's a library in Dublin; it's where they have the Book of Kells. It is so unbelievably beautiful. It's got the kind of light that comes through with the little gold dust motes in it. If there is eternity, I believe it is the library. And I could spend eternity in that library."
There is much still to discover. About the play and about each other as they dive further into the script. But director Scott Ellis has given the company a challenge. He wants a third of the audience to believe Father Flynn is guilty, a third to believe he is innocent, and the final third to have no idea where the truth lies.
“If we can pull of the trick of infusing doubt in the minds of every single person in the audience, we will have done it,” says Daly. “Now trying to figure out how to do that, though, is a complete mystery!”
This photoshoot was styled by Marley Cohen, with stylist assistants Alexis Ventura and Martina Barboni.