Sunday, January 22, 2012

Father Flynn's Opening Sermon

What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. You look for God’s direction and can’t find it. Last year when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation. Despair. “What now? Which way? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself?” It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow beings was your despair. It was a public experience, shared by everyone in our society. It was awful, but we were in it together!

How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity? “No one knows I’m sick. No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend. No one knows I’ve done something wrong.” Imagine the isolation. You see the world as through a window. On the one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people. On the other side: you. Something has happened, you have to carry it, and it’s incommunicable. For those so afflicted, only God knows their pain. Their secret. The secret of their alienating sorrow. And when such a person, as they must, howls to the sky, to God: “Help me!” What if no answer comes? Silence.

I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank and all her crew was drowned. Only this one sailor survived. He made a raft of some spars and, being of a nautical discipline, turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and, exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky. For the next twenty nights, as he floated on the vast ocean, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course by there was no way to be certain. As the days rolled on, and he wasted away with fevers, thirst and starvation, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations—had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen Truth once, and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? This was his dilemma on a voyage without apparent end.

There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. I want to say to you: Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright © by John Patrick Shanley.

Theatre Charlotte's production of DOUBT, A PARABLE promises to be a highlight of the theatre season. The show runs through February 5. Tickets are available now through CarolinaTix at (704) 372-1000 or

Monday, January 16, 2012

Playwright's Preface for DOUBT, A PARABLE

What’s under a play? What holds it up? You might as well ask what’s under me? On what am I built? There’s something silent under every person and under every play. There is something unsaid under any given society as well.

There’s a symptom apparent in America right now. It’s evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic criticism of every kind, in religious discussion. We are living in a courtroom culture. We were living in a celebrity culture, but that’s dead. Now we’re only interested in celebrities if they’re in court. We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe it’s because deep down under the chatter we have come to a place where we know that we don’t know…anything. But nobody’s willing to say that.

Let me ask you. Have you ever held a position in an argument past the point of comfort? Have you ever defended a way of life you were on the verge of exhausting? Have you ever given service to a creed you no longer utterly believed? Have you ever told a girl you loved her and felt the faint nausea of eroding conviction? I have. That’s an interesting moment. For a playwright, it’s the beginning of an idea. I saw a piece of real estate on which I might build a play, a play that sat on something silent in my life and in my time. I started with a title: Doubt.

What is Doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There’s the crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask, we can readily describe our current state. I know my answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you believe in God? Who’s your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography, seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another You. And this wordless Being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.

It is Doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things. When a man feels unsteady, when he falters, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he’s on the verge of growth. The subtle or violent reconciliation of the outer person and the inner core often seems at first like a mistake, like you’ve gone the wrong way and you’re lost. But this is just emotion longing for the familiar. Life happens when the tectonic power of your speechless soul breaks through the dead habits of the mind. Doubt is nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present.

The play. I’ve set my story in 1964, when not just me, but the whole world seemed to be going through some kind of vast puberty. The old ways were still dominant in behavior, dress, morality, world view, but what had been organic expression had become a dead mask. I was in Catholic church school in the Bronx, run by the Sisters of Charity. These women dressed in black, believed in Hell, obeyed their male counterparts, and educated us. The faith, which held us together, went beyond the precincts of religion. It was a shared dream we agreed to call Reality. We didn’t know it, but we had a deal, a social contract. We should all believe the same thing. We would all believe.

Looking back, it seems to me, in those schools at that time, we were an ageless unity. We were all adults and we were all children. We had, like many animals, flocked together for warmth and safety. As a result, we were terribly vulnerable to anyone who chose to hunt us. When trust is the order of the day, predators are free to plunder. And plunder they did. As the ever widening Church scandals reveal, the hunters had a field day. And the shepherds, so invested in the surface, sacrificed actual good for perceived virtue.

I have never forgotten the lessons of that era, nor learned them well enough. I still long for shared certainty, an assumption of safety, the reassurance of believing that others know better than me what’s for the best. But I have been led by the bitter necessities of an interesting life to value that age-old practice of the wise: Doubt.

There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most
dangerous, important, and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. 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.

-John Patrick Shanley
Playwright, DOUBT, A PARABLE

Theatre Charlotte's production of DOUBT, A PARABLE promises to be a highlight of the theatre season. The show runs January 20 through February 5. Tickets are available now through CarolinaTix at (704) 372-1000 or

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Introduction to DOUBT, A PARABLE

Set at the fictional Bronx-area St. Nicholas Catholic school in the fall of 1964 on the cusp of the Second Vatican Council, DOUBT, A PARABLE, written by John Patrick Shanley, involves a conservative older nun, Sister Aloysius (Katherine Goforth), who does not approve of teachers who offer friendship and compassion instead of the discipline she feels students need in order to face a harsh world. When she suspects a priest, Father Flynn (Dave Blamy), of an unspeakable crime against one of the students under her charge, she is faced with the prospect of charging him with unproven allegations and possibly destroying his position as well as her own.

To help build her case, she asks for help from an idealistic young nun, Sister James (Emily Rast), who finds her compassion and love of teaching challenged by the strict codes of the older woman. Sister Aloysius also turns to the student’s mother (Iesha Hoffman). The focus of the play is a small group of individuals in a small school, but the huge issues raised will resonate with the audience long after the lights come down. Much of the play's quick-fire dialogue tackles themes of religion, morality, authority and certainty.

DOUBT, directed at Theatre Charlotte by Gina Stewart, is about how we arrive at certainty and how we deal with uncertainty. Though couched in the issues of morality and authority, this play is about the whole of idea of certainty or lack thereof and that having a lack of certainty and living in doubt can be a passionate exercise rather than something that cuts you off at the knees and makes you weak. In fact, it can make you strong. To live in a state of doubt is to live in a dynamic present tense way rather than sit back on the couch of convictions.

DOUBT has garnered critical acclaim and awards since its debut in 2005. The play was heralded as "Best Play of the Year" by over 10 newspapers and magazines, including Time, Entertainment Weekly, and The Wall Street Journal. The Broadway performances of DOUBT have received numerous awards. It assembled 8 nominations for the 2005 Tony Awards and won 4 Tonys, including Best Play. For DOUBT, Shanley was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an award he could put on the mantle next to his Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the 1987 film, Moonstruck, starring Cher, Nicolas Cage and Olympia Dukakis.

Shanley wrote and directed a film adaptation of DOUBT in 2008 starring Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Amy Adams as Sister James and Viola Davis as Mrs. Muller. Released to great fanfare, the film received 5 Academy Award nominations, including a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay, among its acclaim.

Theatre Charlotte's production promises to be a highlight of the theatre season. The show runs January 20 through February 5. Tickets are available now through CarolinaTix at (704) 372-1000 or