By October 13, 2012 0 Comments Read More →

Doubt and Certainty

John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer-prize winning play Doubt: a Parable is one of the slimmest selections that most book groups would ever attempt. You could even read the whole play aloud and still have time for discussion. Still, those 59 pages contain more food for thought than most much longer works. It’s the best work about the ongoing tragedy of child abuse shielded by religious institutions that I’ve encountered.

Set in a Catholic school in 1964, Doubt has just four characters on stage. Father Flynn is a popular and progressive young priest, a man who frequently battles with the school’s much older and conservative principal, Sister Aloysius. When Sister Aloysius brings her suspicions about Father Flynn to the attention of the idealistic Sister James,  the much younger nun is not sure what to believe. Sister Aloysius is concerned that Father Flynn may be preying on young boys, in particular Donald Muller, the first black student admitted to the school who is in Sister James’ class.  The conflict between two forces is thus set, one admitting the power of doubt in sermons and advocating a changing church, the other running entirely on faith and instinct, seeing good and evil as absolutes. Sister James serves as an unwilling judge, the fulcrum on which the battle of wills seesaws.

The fourth character, Donald Muller’s mother, appears in only one scene, probably the play’s most poignant and thought-provoking. She’s upset because her son and family are the most likely to suffer no matter which side prevails. If Father Flynn is a predator, her son will be his victim. If he’s not, Donald will still suffer the stigma of any investigation.

Sister Aloysius is the most unlikely of heroines, a mostly unlikable disciplinarian who terrifies most of the students and whose methods are seen as outdated by most of the staff. As the story progresses though, one has to admire her tenacity.

Book groups that select Doubt should by all means experience the 2008 film of the same name that starred Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Amy Adams as Sister James, and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller in four bravura performances. Other than adding some other secondary characters to the screen, the film is quite loyal to its adapted source.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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