The Alley Theatre gets a running start on the new season with its opening production. John Patrick Shanley's Doubt won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award after it wowed audiences and critics alike three years ago in New York. The morality "parable" (as Shanley calls it) focusing on a battle for the truth between a charismatic Catholic priest and an iron-willed nun has become one of the most praised American plays of the new millennium. And though the Alley's director James Black is surprisingly reserved in his vision of this caustic tale, the script makes for an exciting step into the new season.

The story takes place at St. Nicholas parish in the Bronx, back in 1964. The country that has spent a decade etherized in the sweet dreams of Eisenhower's 1950s is waking up to some hard new lessons about the world. The president promising Camelot has been assassinated and Father Flynn (Jeffrey Bean) knows his flock is experiencing a kind of doubt Americans haven't known before. His sermons, though, are full of hope and acceptance. He stands before his parishioners at St. Nicholas preaching with gentle stories rather than harsh condemnations; he believes in a new world order for the church. It should be a place where priests and nuns act like family, or at least close, personal friends to the scared Catholics of the country, who are in need of understanding and a pat on the back instead of the harsh moral scolding that the church has been known for in the past.

Sister Aloysius (Elizabeth Heflin), on the other hand, likes things the way they are. Her world is as stark as the long black habit she wears. She drinks her tea without sugar, thank you very much, and is suspicious of anyone who needs a little sweetening in their lives to make it all better. And as the principal of the school at St. Nicholas, she sees to it that her teachers share her habits. She instructs young Sister James (Elizabeth Bunch) not to get too excited in her classroom, not to favor history over any other subject (though poor Sister James loves history) and, for Heaven's sake, that art class is a "waste of time."

Stern as she is, we learn over time that Sister Aloysius is not cruel. And Shanley is very smart in the way he takes us step by step down into the tender depths of Sister Aloysius's soul. We learn, after a while, that the plain, dour, fiercely intelligent woman worries about many things, including a nun who is going blind, the scrawny bushes that need tending in the coming cold and, most of all, the students in her charge, especially one, the first black student at St. Nicholas. And so she calls Sister James into her cold basement office to ask if everything is all right and whether she's noticed anything odd with Father Flynn, who's new to that church.

Sister James, who is as young and fresh-faced as a summer daisy, adores Father Flynn. He has such a way with the boys, playing basketball with them and caring for them all with such affection. Of course, this is exactly what bothers Sister Aloysius. But the man's apparently done nothing wrong. And the hard sister is so, well, hard — affection of any sort would probably inspire mistrust. She asks Sister James to report back any odd behavior, and soon enough, the young woman returns with a story about the lonely black boy in whom Father Flynn has taken a special interest; he's come back from a private talk with Father Flynn with alcohol on his breath. Sister Aloysius starts off on a witch hunt which is sure to end badly for somebody. That Shanley manages to shock us all in the end with the utterly obvious is one of the true marvels of this elegant script.

If Black's production were as surefooted as the writing, the show would be deeply satisfying. As it is, there is tentativeness to the Alley's version. Though the whole thing is only 90 minutes and runs without an intermission, it feels somehow longer. Hugh Landwehr's sets don't help much. They look fine, but they're so realistic and move so slowly that it feels as though the designer has missed a chance to deal stylistically with some of the major issues in the play, including the questions of how to know what is real and not real.

The casting also feels a bit off. Two of the Alley's finest company members stand at either end of this battle. But Heflin is too tenderhearted; from the start, her Sister Aloysius seems to be a good woman underneath it all. And Bean is a charming and sometimes brilliant actor, but he doesn't bring the unsettling and fiery charisma of the narcissist to this production. Only when Alice M. Gatling appears as Mrs. Muller, the boy's mother, does the entire production rise to the power of Shanley's parable.

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Lee Williams