John Patrick Shanley's Doubt caused such a sensation on Broadway that it prompted a national tour, a rare occurrence these days for straight plays. This is not the show's first area production, as Sheldon Epps scored co-world premiere honors by agreeing — before Shanley had even finished the play — to produce it at Pasadena Playhouse. That production, though successful, was overshadowed by the reputation of its New York counterpart, which arrived at the Ahmanson Theatre with its Tony-winning stars Cherry Jones and Adriane Lenox, along with Chris McGarry, who served as a standby on Broadway. There's no doubt Shanley's intelligently written story, though set in 1964, connects with modern audiences. And Doug Hughes, who also directed the production on Broadway, creates a sense of tension and realism that makes for an effective detective story. The performances, though powerful, are at times overly mannered. Doubt is clearly a strong work. But despite the hype, it's not that memorable.
The setting is the Bronx of 1964 — the time and place Shanley attended Catholic school. Sister Aloysius (Jones) is an intimidating conservative principal who believes that a charismatic priest, Father Flynn (McGarry), is abusing the school's only African American student, Donald Muller. Sister James (Lisa Joyce), Donald's teacher, has her suspicions, though she wants to believe Flynn. Sister Aloysius is unwavering in her convictions, despite a complete lack of evidence. And she won't stop investigating even after meeting Donald's mother, Mrs. Muller (Lenox), who believes the importance of getting her son into a good high school outweighs everything. "It's just till June," Mrs. Muller says.
Shanley's script refrains from providing concrete proof of Flynn's guilt or innocence, and that ambiguity is heightened by McGarry's performance, which is filled with anguish and kindness. Jones creates in Sister Aloysius a steadfast sense of sureness. Her matter-of-fact delivery never changes, whether it's a whimsical quip to Sister James or a condemnation of Flynn. Although her motions and inflections are a bit robotic, she never misses a beat. Lenox gradually finds the frustration of a helpless mother, which turns her one scene into the best of the evening. The weak link is Joyce, who as Sister James often loses her accent and her focus.
Hughes gives equal weight to the humor and pathos of Shanley's script, and the frequent fluctuation is an enjoyably emotional roller coaster. There's nothing about Doubt that makes it one for the ages. It's simply quite good.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m. (Also Thu. 2 p.m. Oct. 26. Dark Thu. 8 p.m. Oct. 5 and Sun. 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29.). Sep. 27-Oct. 29. (213) 628-2772.