In the preface that John Patrick Shanley wrote for his award-winning play “Doubt,” he writes: “We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict.”
Anders Cato, who directs the upcoming production of “Doubt,” now in previews at the George Street Playhouse, and opening on Friday, November 30, feels that Shanley’s preface has been invaluable to the preparation for this production. The play is about exactly what its title says: doubt. It has been widely written that the title was the first step in the birth of this play. The title came to Shanley and from there he has used his personal experiences as a young boy attending a Catholic school in the Bronx to explore the conflicts between certainty and doubt that are so prevalent in our society today, but aren’t really new. Maybe we need to have more doubt. Maybe we should question things more. What is certainty? How much is intuition? How much is conditioning?
Shanley also writes: “Communication has become a contest of wills…becoming obnoxious and insincere. Maybe we’ve come to a place where we know that we don’t know anything. But nobody’s willing to say that.”
In a time when “I’m the decider” has become a catch phrase, the message of “Doubt” speaks to us now as well as it did to the audiences who saw the play either in its inaugural production at the Manhattan Theatre Club in November, 2005, or its amazing-for-a-straight-drama transfer to Broadway the following March. Interestingly, Shanley purposely set the play in 1964, a time of change in the Catholic church, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy with its rumors of conspiracies, and a time of racial unrest. “Even as we think of ourselves as not the kind of people who would rush to judgment, it is very hard to allow oneself the time and effort to see the other point of view,” he says.
The basic story of “Doubt” centers on the suspicions of the old-fashioned autocratic principal of a Catholic school, Sister Aloysius, who suspects that the affable and friendly priest who coaches the basketball team is molesting one of the students, the only African American in the school. In preparation for rehearsals, director Cato took the cast to the Bronx, the setting for the play and the playwright’s home territory, to talk with a group of nuns. Together the group discussed the play and its setting. “They had all read the play so we had a very intense discussion about all of the issues of the play,” says Cato in a phone interview. He notes that there is so much material to explore, reaching deep psychological issues and questions about faith, society, race, educational theories, compassion, forgiveness, and passion.
“The scope of the play is extraordinary,” says Cato. “It is important to go beyond guilty or not, so that an audience can see the humanity in all of the characters regardless of where they land in the guilt question.” Though the play deals with “big” questions or morality and judgment, he says, “the gift of this play is that it is also a mystery. Guaranteed: you will leave pondering this conundrum.” Shanley has said that this is really a three-act play, the last act taking place in the car as playgoers go home. U.S. 1 theater critic Simon Saltzman wrote in his review of the New York production, “The play’s ultimate irony lies in the playwright’s decision not to impose innocence or guilt but rather to show how easily we become slaves of self-righteousness and how mercifully we are made receptive to doubt, perhaps one of the most spiritual of all human considerations.”
It is unfortunately rare for an American drama to find success on Broadway. This play did. Cato thinks the deciding factor that made “Doubt” popular is its “precise, economic structure.” He says, “It is very hard to find an unnecessary phrase or moment. It’s almost like an equation where all the moments all lead up to the end where there is no real answer to the equation.”
Cato returns to George Street, where he directed two plays last season, “I Am My Own Wife” and “Souvenir.” He has directed productions in regional theaters in America, as well as in Europe. He came to the United States from his native Sweden to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts in acting and directing in 1990. Two teachers who were a strong influence on his work are known as legends in the theater, Stella Adler and Joseph Chaiken.
Cato remembers that Adler was “quite old at the time. There were days of brilliant insights, and then…” He suggests that he felt she simplified a bit when she talked of Ibsen and Strindberg. But when she was “on,” he says she was very perceptive regarding analyzing the text and how the structure of a play works.
Cato became Chaiken’s assistant and kept the connection even after the job ended. They remained friends and Cato directed some of Chaiken’s last performances as an actor. Chaiken was closely associated with playwright Samuel Beckett and was also the founder of the experimental theater cooperative, The Open Theatre, which startled the theater scene during the late 1960s and early ’70s. The crux of his teaching emphasized “playing the moment” and finding the truth in that moment. Before Cato worked for him, Chaiken had suffered a stroke that resulted in partial aphasia (brain damage that can affect language skills) In Chaiken’s files, Cato had found “beautiful recordings from the 1980s of Joe pre-aphasia.” Using a suggestion from a letter from Beckett, Cato worked with Chaiken to develop a theater piece. “I followed Beckett’s instruction and put together Joe’s two voices, which resulted in a performance that we did at the Royal Court Theatre in London and later at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.” Cato recently collaborated with Dee Henoch to make a documentary film about Chaikin and his work with actors with disabilities.
Kate McGuire, executive director at Berkshire Theatre Festival, became an advocate for Cato and has continued to invite him to direct there. “This has developed as an important place for me. She’s given me very hard plays and interesting material to explore,” says Cato. It was there that Cato began a collaboration with Craig Lucas, supplying the translation for and directing Lucas’ adaptation of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” which played at the edgy Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York in May, 2005.
His Scandinavian background has certainly given him an inside connection to the plays of Strindberg and Ibsen, often acknowledged as the fathers of contemporary drama. Cato says, “I do feel that there’s a bit of a door where Ibsen and Strindberg take theater to a place that looks inside a human being, going deeper to internal themes. On some level, it’s a door that I feel I look through into the plays that I direct.” Even as a high school student, he was looking out from his surroundings, with a special passion for Russian and French literature. Now his credits include American theater classics from Tennesse Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” to David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” to Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”
Bringing his varied experience to “Doubt,” he has led the cast in an exploration of the text as Stella Adler would have wanted. Chaiken also indirectly contributed, Cato says. “Joe’s particular strength was being able to peel off layers around something and find the core of a theatrical moment, go straight to the essential emotion that he wanted to lay bare. That’s a big part of what I’m always trying to do.”
Cato says of his production of “Doubt”: “We are like a planet: a crust on the outside that knows the answer to all the questions, who we are and how we believe. Underneath is another you and that you is what begins to show at moments of doubt. The beginning of change is the crucial moment of doubt.” And again re-reading Shanley’s preface, his quote says it all, “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does…We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word.”
Doubt, previews Wednesday and Thursday, November 28 and 29, opening night Friday, November 30, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Drama by John Patrick Shanley set in a Catholic school in 1964 focuses on a woman’s suspicions about the inappropriate conduct of a male colleague. Through Sunday, December 23. $28 to $62. 732-246-7717.