A Teacher Sees Herself Younger, and on Broadway
The New York Times, March 30, 2005
by Samuel Freedman
The phone rang in the Bronx convent last Thanksgiving morning while Sister Margaret McEntee was watching the Macy's parade on television, just another teacher thankful for a long weekend near the semester's end. One of the other sisters answered, listened and walked to Sister Margaret with the message, "They're asking for Sister James."
Now that was strange. Sister Margaret had not been known as Sister James since 1968, when she chose to adopt a female name in a personal response to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. And stranger still, the woman on the phone, her former student Gerri Cunningham, had kept in touch over the years and knew full well to ask for Sister Margaret. So why the anachronism? Why the inside joke?
"By any chance did you read the write-up about this new play?" Mrs. Cunningham asked. The question made Sister Margaret remember a comment at the convent a few nights earlier, about a photograph in the paper from a play titled "Doubt," a picture of two sisters in the distinctive black bonnets and robes of her order, the Sisters of Charity. One was identified in the caption as Sister James.
As Sister Margaret began to recite those details over the phone, Mrs. Cunningham interrupted to say: "That's our school. That's you. And the writer is John Patrick Shanley."
Nearly a half-century of cluttered memory fell away -- all those schools, all those classes, an education career ranging from elementary school to college, from the Bronx to the Bahamas -- and Sister Margaret saw Johnny Shanley. She saw Johnny Shanley in her mind's eye with his shaggy auburn hair, one child among 42 in class 1A2 at St. Anthony's school in the East Tremont neighborhood in the Bronx in the fall of 1956, and she saw herself with the red hair and toothy smile of Sister James, a 21-year-old newcomer teaching her first class.
As Sister Margaret learned in the subsequent weeks and months, Mr. Shanley had transformed his own memories of a beloved teacher in a childhood school into the stuff not of mere nostalgia but great art. "Doubt" opens tomorrow night on Broadway after an acclaimed run at the Manhattan Theater Club last fall, and in it the fictional Sister James stands at the center of a piercing, relentless drama.
Mr. Shanley has renamed St. Anthony as St. Nicholas and imagined an incident that never happened there -- an alleged case of a priest molesting a pupil. The boy's teacher, Sister James, finds herself torn between the play's two antagonists. One is a progressive, eloquent priest, Father Flynn, who may or may not have committed the sexual abuse. The other, Sister Aloysius, is the school principal, an educator hidebound enough to lament the demise of fountain pens and deem the song "Frosty the Snowman" heretical, yet acute and perceptive in her suspicions of clerical misconduct.
In a play that refuses the palliative of a clear answer, Sister James represents nothing less than the audience's conflicted conscience.
People come in thinking that nuns are funny because of 'Sister Act,' 'Nunsense,' 'Sister Mary Ignatius,'" said Mr. Shanley, referring to films and plays that treated the religious women as easy targets, since what could be more ripe for ridicule in a cynical age than the combination of piety, idealism and celibacy? "But I think of the play as an homage to a time and a place and a people who gave greatly of themselves. One of the things I'm asking an audience to doubt is their assumptions about these women."
This tribute comes not from a teacher's pet, either. Mr. Shanley's own Catholic-school career in the Bronx included being thrown out of kindergarten for daydreaming about "The Mickey Mouse Club," banned from the St. Anthony hot-lunch program for flinging leftovers at other pupils, and expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School for going three months without turning in his Spanish homework and telling the religion teacher he didn't believe in God.
"I actually did," Mr. Shanley says. "I just knew it would get a rise."
Sister James had seen the early stages of a different Johnny Shanley, though, a quiet boy who wrote skillfully enough to win a statewide essay contest for Catholic school students. And that Johnny Shanley remembered a Sister James of patience and tolerance, a teacher who placed a cigar box under the desk of a boy whose feet otherwise didn't touch the floor and who taught phonics with her own songs. "When two vowels go walking," went a typical verse, "the first one does the talking."
When the inspiration for "Doubt" first struck Mr. Shanley three years ago, as the Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal was making national news, it was only natural that he thought back to St. Anthony and Sister James. "Eugene O 'Neill used to talk about the 'poetry of the real,'" Mr. Shanley said. "I knew I had this world that I knew about and that few people knew. It's just the specificity. It let me use these youthful impressions and dream off them."
The stage designer for "Doubt," John Lee Beatty, based the set on the actual St. Anthony. In refining her performance as Sister James for Broadway, the actress Heather Goldenhersh spent a day visiting with Sister Margaret, at age 69 still teaching classes about social justice at Notre Dame high school in Greenwich Village. On the wall of Ms. Goldenhersh's dressing room hangs a photograph of Sister James taken in the late 1950's, and the actress seems to have virtually rearranged her molecules to resemble that figure.
But those efforts at impersonation all came relatively late, months after "Doubt" had opened Off Broadway. For it was only after Thanksgiving that Mr. Shanley phoned Sister Margaret and only in January, on the last day of the Manhattan Theater Club engagement, that the student and teacher, both gray for years by now, met again. On the day Sister Margaret saw "Doubt," Mr. Shanley sat at the end of her row, checking her face for reactions, abashed as the first grader he once had been.
"Calling her up was a little trepidatious," he said. "But the really powerful experience was having her see the play. I hadn't seen her since I was 6. I didn't know what kind of person she was now. My concern was that she'd say, 'You stole my life.'"
He need not have worried. "He renewed my life," Sister Margaret put it. "I am young again."