Playing Bad Characters: Doubt, Scene 4

doubt jamesScene 4 reveals a number of interesting things about Sister Aloysius:

First, she is tending to plants that need to be protected from the upcoming winter, and which the gardener neglected to do.  She could ask Mr. McGinn to do it, or berate him for not having done it (and perhaps she does, in a scene we never see), but instead, Shanley shows us her doing the caretaking herself.

Yes, it’s fabulous business from the actor’s point of view, but it’s more than that.  Playwrights don’t make arbitrary choices in these matters.  Sister Aloysius’ caring for things that really need caring for is something Shanley wants us to see.

Scene 4 also reveals that Sister Aloysius was once married.  She says little about her husband in the play, other than that he died in WW II.  We are left to surmise the details, but there seems to be a connection between his death and her decision to enter the convent.  It is up to you, as the actor, to decide what that connection is – and unlike the matter of whether or not Jorgy and Bea in Other People’s Money had an affair or didn’t or are living together or not – I think this connection is critical to knowing who Sister Aloysius is and why she acts as she does.  But given so few hints, you probably won’t know the answer until deep into rehearsals.

Shanley also notes in his stage directions in this scene that “Sister Aloysius smiles for the first time.”  Now, I know I’m very fond of ignoring stage directions, but this is one I would have to think long and hard about before tossing it out.  It is very specific and speaks to Sister Aloysius’ general behavior and attitude.  More importantly, it serves the reason Shanley wrote the play to begin with:  to explore the nature of doubt.  In Scene 2, we meet a nun who isn’t particularly likable, who seems judgmental and unfeeling.  In Scene 4, we’re seeing her other side, and it puts us off-balance, which is precisely where Shanley wants us to be.

Still, she’s not yet a sympathetic character – until she starts talking about the relationship between the women and men religious in the Catholic Church as well as her understanding of the people in the parish and why Donald Muller will be hit by some classmate.  All right, she doesn’t suddenly become sympathetic, but she becomes a little more human.  When she explains to Sister James the difficulty of proving what is a hunch on both their parts, the audience starts to move into a place of uncertainty about the main plot line of the play, a move aided by the fact that Sister James has identified precisely what Sister Aloysius suspects, without clear direction from Sister Aloysius.

Has Sister Aloysius subtly manipulated Sister James into suspecting Father Flynn of child abuse?  Perhaps, but only perhaps.  There is inadequate proof in either direction, which is precisely what Shanley wants.  Doubt is, after all, doubt, not certainty.  That means giving the audience the ability to understand a little about what makes the characters tick and why they all perceive the same situation differently, without giving clear evidence as to what actually happened.

Kind of like life.

In my last post on this play, I’ll talk about Father Flynn and how to decide (as an actor) his innocence or guilt.


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