is about doubt, and so you leave the theater thinking, talking, weighing what and whom you believe; the play is satisfying precisely because it refuses to satisfy by answering questions and resolving ambiguity.
There is, however, no doubt about the show's success: The playwright, John Patrick Shanley, won the Tony for best play of 2005; Doug Hughes won the Tony for directing it; and Cherry Jones won the Tony (as well as a slew of other prizes) for best actress. She reprises that performance in this excellent production, now ending its national tour at the Merriam.
The formidable Sister Aloysius (Jones), principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx, becomes suspicious of Father Flynn (Chris McGarry), who takes an interest in a new boy at the school; she suggests that a young teacher, Sister James (Lisa Joyce), keep an eye on any unusual behavior. Lives, reputations and careers are at stake.
Jones' Sister Aloysius is an old-fashioned nun; it's 1964, she is in full habit, arthritic, wizened and bespectacled. Intolerant of innocence, compassion and enthusiasm, she crushes what she can: Father Flynn's neighborhood outreach, sweet Sister James' passion for history, Christmas pageants that are fun rather than reverential, ballpoint pens, long fingernails, sugar in tea. Her list of thou-shalt-nots is long, but she also persuades us of the value of rules, of sacrificing self to the difficult task, of being willing to be feared and hated.
When the boy's mother (Caroline Stefanie Clay) is called in, she gives us a glimpse of what life is like for her Donald, gay son of a brutal father. Pragmatic Mrs. Muller, in her Sunday-best suit and hat, brings a glimpse of the real world outside this Catholic hothouse, making us feel the allure as well as the falseness of the cloistered life.
The play is cleverly punctuated by sermons in the form of parables; as Father Flynn tells Sister James, "The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion." But if there is a weak link in the production it is in Chris McGarry's preaching. Since we are his congregation, we should feel the power of his sermons, but his thin voice, rising to shrill, lacks sufficient magnetism.
What is finally at stake in Doubt is faith - in God, in the church, in one's fellow man, in one's own judgment. Shanley's preface to the script ends with this courageous caveat: "We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That's the silence under the chatter of our time."
Written by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes. Sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Pat Collins, original music and sound by David Van Tieghem.
Cast: Cherry Jones (Sister Aloysius), Chris McGarry (Father Flynn), Lisa Joyce (Sister James), Caroline Stefanie Clay (Mrs. Muller).
Playing at: Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Through May 20. Tickets $25-$64.50. Tickets: 215-336-1234,