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Special Features Always an Original Eileen Atkins puts her indelible mark on Doubt's righteous, strong-willed Sister Aloysius.
Eileen Atkins in Doubt.
Eileen Atkins in Doubt. Photo by Joan Marcus

It was her "American friends," says Eileen Atkins, who telephoned her in London when Doubt opened in New York to tell her "how wonderful the play was, how wonderful Cherry was" - Cherry Jones, as Sister Aloysius, iron-willed principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960's - "and they all said, 'What a marvelous part for you!'"

"So," says Dame Eileen the week she is actually going into Doubt here in New York - a week late, because of 102-degree flu, "after I read it, I thought, 'I'll wait to see if Cherry will be coming to do it in London.' Then I learned Maggie Smith had been to see it in New York. My agent - he's Maggie's agent too - got weird. 'Maggie's after it,' he said. The fact is, she saw it, I read it, and we both said the same thing: It will never go in London. So I forgot about it."

And then three months later, the agent called and said, 'What would you think about taking over from Cherry Jones in New York?' I thought, 'My God, it's been running three months, and I never take over from anyone else… not ever… but why not?' I love going back to New York."

In truth, when producer Bill Shepherd suggested in 1978 that he and Eileen get married, she informed him, "I don't do shirts, I don't do breakfasts, and I go to New York whenever I want." That's still true, and they're still married, and here she is in New York, holed up for six months - the length of her contract - in a strange, snazzy new hotel smack up next to Balducci's market.

"Balducci's!" she says now. "It's saved me. I live on Balducci's." Her accommodations even include a small but "very proper" kitchen. There are those who highly regard this superb actress as a cook. When she was here in William Nicholson's stark The Retreat From Moscow a few seasons ago, stage manager Roy Harris, who was preparing a cookbook, asked her for a recipe. When she subsequently opened the published book, she found the following next to the recipe for Eileen's Fish Pie: "I met her on The Retreat From Moscow. A deeply opinionated woman, but can easily change her mind and is the first to say she's sorry." Yes, Eileen Atkins has known some severe people in her life, also some severe nuns, and oh yes, she has friends like Sister Aloysius.

"Come on!" she says. "There's a lot of Aloysius in me. A lot. It wasn't by accident that my friends thought of me for this role. No, I am not Catholic, but I am right now because I'm Sister Aloysius. I've dabbled in all the religions. I assure you, if you've worked with Alec Guinness, you've dabbled in a big way. He had me going to Farm Street - if you're a sophisticated Londoner and want to take instruction in Catholicism, that's where you go - but at the last moment I turned away."

"But I like Sister Aloysius." A recollection crosses her features. "Larry Olivier was - what's the Shaw play they made that Chocolate Soldier musical from? Yes, Arms and the Man. Olivier was playing the lead in that, and the morning after the opening, he knew he'd failed. He met Tony Guthrie on the street and told him he knew he'd failed. And Tony Guthrie said, 'It's because you don't like him. Go home and learn to like him.'"

The flu knocked the spots off Ms. Atkins, and the first night she made it into Doubt at the Walter Kerr, a Tuesday night in January, she was still so foggy that in the gripping scene in which Sister Aloysius locks horns with the mother of a boy - the school's only black student - who may have been too closely befriended by the dynamic Father Brendan Flynn, she "couldn't think of what the priest could be doing to the boy." With a short laugh: "I looked at Adriane [actress Adriane Lenox] and said the priest was going 'to do something disgraceful'" (which Sister Aloysius would never have said, and John Patrick Shanley would never have written).

Not laughing: "I was lousy. I was much better the next night. And I'm going to be even better next week. A woman asked if I thought I was going to be better than Cherry. I said, 'Don't look for something better, look for something different.'" And indeed, where Cherry Jones was like a white flame, Eileen Atkins is like a dark flame - no less searing, but internalized.

What she knew when she first read Doubt was that it "was a damn good play, and what I liked about it was the tightness, not a spare word, goes straight through to tell a damn good story. It's entertaining, also makes you think, and that's so rare today."

Atkins has admiring words for director Doug Hughes ("a smashing guy") and for Ron Eldard ("did you know he'd been a professional wrestler?"), who has succeeded Brian F. O'Byrne as Father Flynn. "Ron goes for the big impact, then refines it and refines it. I do a sort of mosaic. The only stipulation I made was I wouldn't talk American."

Put all the pieces of the mosaic together and this is big-T Theatre, with and without a doubt.

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