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‘Doubt’ leaves audience with more questions than answers

Thera Freeman 
Special to The Aspen Times

Written by the acclaimed scribe John Patrick Shanley, “Doubt: A Parable,” is a compelling, introspective one-act play set within the confines of a 1964 Catholic school: Saint Nicholas in the Bronx, New York. 

In just under 90 minutes the play sounds the depths of the complex themes of doubt and faith, morality and truth, and power dynamics in institutions. First performed off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club, the show moved to Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater for 525 performances between March 2005 and July 2006 and is set for a revival on Broadway in 2024.

Seated in the Hurst Theater with the sounds of children playing in the nearby park, the audience is immediately cast as members of the congregation as the play opens with a sermon from Father Flynn (Jeremy Beck), who asks, “What do you do when you are not sure?” He looks around the theater’s audience, inviting viewers into a deeper connection than observing. His question sets the tone for the themes to be grappled with on stage and in the audience’s hearts and minds long after curtain call. As the play unfolds, the audience is spun into a web of ambiguity and uncertainty, questioning the boundaries of trust, and the implications of acting on suspicion. 


With minimal set dressing or props to distract from the dialogue, the space of the stage is used with clever intentionality. The lighting designed by Christina Watanabe and sound design crafted by Jane Shaw cues the audience, signaling whether the scene is indoors and out, with special attention to Father Flynn’s sermons sounding as if one were seated in a spacious church.


At the center of this parable is Sister Aloysius (Tony Award and Drama Desk winner Karen Ziemba), a stern rule-loving nun who serves as the principal of St. Nicholas, and young Sister James (Jessie Shelton), whom Sister Aloysius works to mold into a less warm and more calculating teacher and member of the order. Sister Aloysius’ suspicion of the charismatic and well-loved Father Flynn’s relationship with a young male student, Donald Muller, launches a campaign to uncover what she believes to be the truth. 

Driven by her conviction and absolute moral certainty, Sister Aloysius becomes consumed by her beliefs about Father Flynn’s actions, leading to a battle of wills and a clash of ideologies that threatens to rend the school in two. 


Both sisters invite Father Flynn into Sister Aloysius’ office under the pretense of discussing the Christmas pageant, but it is soon revealed that it is truly an ambush attempting to draw a confession from the father. The delicate intimacy of a small ensemble cast cannot be forced and these three (Ziemba, Shelton and Beck) as the sisters and father deliver a simply outstanding example of the artistry of ensemble work in these moments, all adroitly directed by Jenn Thompson.

Adding to the performance is the chemistry between Donald Muller’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Jasmin Walker), and Sister Aloysius. Likewise, when the growing tension between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius blossomed into a shouting match, the audience was so captivated that we were all collectively holding our breath. Once the argument subsided and the dialogue moved on, several of my nearby seatmates exhaled and relaxed back into their chairs. 

Drawing to its end, “Doubt” does not leave the viewer with definitive answers, but rather the second act commences as the audience departs the theater, some quietly deep in thought and others during the standing ovation initiating conversations, both strongly opinionated and unsure of what really happened between Father Flynn and Donald Muller, each wrestling with their own lived experience coloring their opinion and what could possibly be the truth. Is it as Sister Aloysius says, “That is the truth that I know.” Or as Father Flynn proclaims, “The truth makes for a bad sermon?”

“Doubt” runs through Saturday, July 29. For more information and tickets:

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