John Patrick Shanley's Danny & The Deep Blue Sea is currently running at The Alliance Theatre Lab in Miami, and if you get the chance to see it, do. The story of two incredibly damaged societal rejects meeting in a bar and discovering their potential for mutual healing, Danny is desolate enough to make you feel things you don't want to feel and warm enough to make you glad for the imposition.
Danny & The Deep Blue Sea was first performed in 1983, and if Shanley had spent the years between then and now creating more of the same, he'd be an important figure in the canon. That's not what happened. While Danny is flawless in its own way, it's the product of a brilliant young playwright flexing his muscles, delighting in all he can say and how easily he can say it; more a gush of raw talent than a finished, considered work. Doubt: A Parable, first performed in 2004 and now running at the Caldwell Theatre's new digs at the Count de Hoernle Theatre, is infinitely better: more nuanced, more controlled, broader in scope, and vastly deeper in meaning. It won the Pulitzer in 2005, and it might be the finest play to do so since Angels In America: Millennium Approaches, in 1993. If you can catch the two Shanley shows in town, you'll be glimpsing the edge of a third, and equally compelling, drama: the one in which a good playwright becomes a great one.
Doubt is that rare play that plumbs a plot for more than its own conclusion and obvious moral. The story of an old-school, pre-Vatican II nun dealing with a new-school, lovey-dovey priest who may or may not be a pedophile in the hush-hush days of the early '60s, Doubt could easily have been a chic examination of the insidious evil of pederasty, or an even chicer broadside against the institutional perversity of the Catholic church. But Doubt is neither of those things. Not only has Shanley avoided such facile judgments — his play is so full of human depth and honesty that, after seeing it, those facile judgments become harder to accept when proffered by others.
It's amazing that the play communicated so forcefully when I saw it last Saturday, because the show began as an unmitigated clusterfuck. During the first two scenes, the large stadium in the Count de Hoernle seemed ready to devolve into a moshpit, as an aged wife in one of the rear rows argued with her even more aged husband about his hearing aid, which was howling like an air raid siren. The audience erupted in angry chatter and coughing, and more than one purple-faced punter stood up from his seat to holler: "Would you please quiet down back there?" I doubt many in attendance caught more than ten words of actor Terry Hardcastle's opening monologue, or of the scene immediately after. I certainly didn't, and I feel terrible about it. Doubt is a play with no fat, and to miss a single line is to miss something of value.
Hardcastle plays Father Brendan Flynn, and his opening monologue was really a sermon. Hardcastle's character does this throughout the show — as Sundays tick by, Father Flynn offers sermons that are both very wise and very meta, putting everything you've just seen into some new kind of light. After Pat Nesbit's Sister Aloysius (the old-school, unsmiling, rulers-on-the-knuckles kind of nun) discusses Father Flynn's possible indiscretions with Sister James (a new-school sweetness-and-light kind of nun, played by Amy Montminy) and the two confront him about it, Father Flynn delivers a gorgeous sermon on the subject of gossip. It involves feathers. I don't want to tell more, but it's a breathtaking piece of work: before he's even half done, you're utterly convinced of the Father's virtue and wisdom.
This from a man you're half-convinced is an active child molester. It's an awkward position to be in, but that's the point. Doubt, you know. It's everywhere in this script. The moment you feel one thing, and feel it certainly, you are pulled in another direction. Miraculously, these quick 180's always feel more like life than like an author's imposition. Thank John Patrick Shanley, for sure, but also thank the cast: Terry Hardcastle's Father Flynn is exactly as seductive a presence as you'd expect any veteran manipulator to be (and that's not to say he is a child molester, 'cuz if so, I'm not telling — I'm just saying that it's his job to sell virtue to the masses, and you believe he can do it). When confronted repeatedly by Sister Aloysius's allegations, his warmth gives way to a righteous (or faux-righteous?) ire so convincing that I momentarily feared he'd break Pat Nesbit's nose. Nesbit is perfect, selling you over and over on the goodness of the kind of stern, stony Catholicism most of us gave up as dead and useless years ago. When she's lecturing young Sister James on proper decorum for nuns in a classroom, she somehow makes the point that being enthusiastic about the subjects one teaches is a terrible error. And so are outward displays of enthusiasm in general. "The best teachers don't perform," she says. "They make the children perform."
What's wonderful about watching an actress like Nesbit take on a writer like Shanley is the way Shanley's words seem to come from an intelligence other than his own — which is to say from his characters, from individuals operating with free agency — and the way a great actress can capitalize on the opportunity, and seem to make decisions before our eyes. This isn't a showy thing. It's organic; the prosaic stuff of everyday life. As Father Flynn says to Sister James, when James asks whether parables are less worthy of interpretation than things that happen in real life: "No! Things that happen in life are beyond interpretation." Most people try to interpret them anyway, and to watch Nesbit is to watch that struggle, writ large.
This is even more true of Pat Bowie, a working actress whom I don't believe we've previously seen in South Florida. Bowie portrays the mother of the boy Father Flynn may or may not be molesting, and in her single scene onstage, there is more blood, guts, fear, rage, love and turmoil than in most theaters' whole seasons. I wish I could say more, but I can't — it would give the impression that something's pinned down, that there is some fact you can hang your hat on to think you know what Doubt's all about. You don't. Even after seeing it, you won't really know. You'll just know that there's a lot to think about, and that it probably means something.