A Soul-Shaking Amy Ryan in DOUBT — Review


Amy Ryan and Zoe Kazan | Photo: Joan Marcus

Juan A. Ramirez
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March 7, 2024 9:00 PM

There aren’t enough sisters at St. Nicholas Church to prevent laypeople from having to teach some of the schoolchildren. Its principal, Sister Aloysius , who sees a decline of faith everywhere around her, knows this better than anyone. Played by Amy Ryan in the first Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play, Doubt, she (like the production) is unshakable in her vision, even if the writing on the wall becomes smudged around the edges.

The object of her laser-sharp focus is Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber), whose friendly sermons are, to him, a way of drawing people to their Bronx church; to her, a cheapening of their order. 

Their friction descends straight to the earth when her suspicions that he has been molesting a student — the school’s sole Black pupil in 1964 – are apparently confirmed by the Minnie Mouseish Sister James (Zoe Kazan).

Liev Schreiber and Zoe Kazan | Photo: Joan Marcus

Through Shanley’s language, which can dip into comedy without losing its dead-seriousness, his homeyness and her austerity spark genuine theatrical fire. Memories of the excellent 2008 film adaptation aside, what most emerges from this revival is the brilliance of the material, in which every character is given fully-realized stakes: Aloysius demands order; Flynn craves solitude; and James wants tranquility. In a gut-punch of a scene rendered haunting by Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the boy’s mother, we realize trying to survive the bureaucratic whiteness of their world presents an entirely different purgatory.

But Scott Ellis’ direction is slack where suffocating tension is demanded. A play that deals in considering the unthinkable must be given room, however gasping, to breathe, and key scenes breeze through without the pensiveness their particular ilk would pause to consider. The sisters’ near-wordless agreement that something awful has taken place, for instance, seems to bank on our previous knowledge of the plot rather than let its implications take hold.

Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, and Liev Schreiber | Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s tempting to chalk this up to Ryan’s last-minute substitution for Tyne Daly, who bowed out as the production began previews. And though, perhaps, some time will benefit the production, it seems impossible to fault Ryan, who is soul-shakingly effective. Her Sister Aloysius is stoney and near-monotone, as if registering emotion would seem to her ungodly or, worse, unproductive. The actor makes an art out of frozenness: her physical rigidity — at times cutting a monolithic silhouette in her nun’s habit (by Linda Cho) — is richly unwavering, whether due to resoluteness or paralysis. 

She’s matched by her castmates, as well as David Rockwell’s exquisite church set, which rotates to fold in on itself even as its cloistered garden provides a glimmer of hopeful ascent. If this Doubt leaves room for growth, there is still none left as to the play’s intense brilliance.

Doubt is in performance through April 21, 2024 at the Todd Haimes Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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