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The tyranny of righteousness in Belfast and the Bronx

You can hardly swing a playbill without hitting a one-person show this season. Whether on Broadway or tucked away in smaller spaces, they are simply everywhere. With solo performers, we have traveled to Iraq, Long Island, the dark, if festively accessorized, recesses of Dame Edna’s and Mario Cantone’s minds, and now to war-ravaged Belfast.

Geraldine Hughes’ one-person play, “Belfast Blues” is her autobiographical story of growing up in Belfast during the decades-long wars known as “The Troubles.” She describes the life of a girl and young adolescent living literally on the battle line between Catholic and Protestant, her dreams of show business, her relationship with God, her family and the world of public housing in which she was raised and the effects of war on what she persistently calls “one wee girl.”

Hughes is a competent writer and a compelling performer. Though physically small, she fills the stage with incident and characters that are consistently interesting. She also achieves something rare for a one-person show—an epic portrait of the world she lives deftly balanced against the intimate and often touching portrayal of herself as a young girl living in and attempting to cope with that world. We see her First Communion, her fights with her family and her grasping at the small pleasures of life in a horrific world.

It is a world defined largely by fear and violence—that included people dying in her doorway and other assorted horrors. Through it all, though, Geraldine managed to keep her girlish sense of optimism that something will turn up to take her away from the poverty she lived in. Something does turn up, the chance to be in a movie, and the center of the piece is about Geraldine’s first experience as an actress in a TV film about children living through The Troubles. The job turns out to be only a vacation, and she ends up back in Belfast, suffering through her daily life and yearning for something more.

At the end of the play, she is still longing, and saying goodbye to her father who has been killed in the violence, but we know, since Hughes is on a stage in New York City, that somehow she did get away.

The play is full of lovely moments. Hughes recalls and beautifully portrays the irrepressible spirits of childhood, the pleasure of a new dress or the hope that something good is coming. There is a moment where she is eating fish and chips for lunch, a rare treat, that is one of the most compelling depictions of the corroding effect of poverty I have ever seen. The performance is at its most powerful when it is simplest, most often in the private moments of Geraldine as a little girl.

Unfortunately, the play loses impact when Hughes portrays the supporting characters—the rabid IRA supporting neighbor and chain smoker, her father’s drinking buddies, even a school nun. These characters become cartoons, almost Dickensian, that are played for laughs and though they are indeed humorous at times, they also become tiresome—which is unfortunate in a piece that runs a mere 85 minutes.

At the same time, it is impossible to see this play and not be moved. When it works, there is an honesty and freshness about Hughes that is remarkable and touching. Her story brings us into a world most of us have been blessed to avoid and shows us in the simplest possible way—through the eyes of an innocent child—the insanity and cruelty of war.

Since I will say as often as possible to anyone who will listen that there is no finer actress in the American theater today than Cherry Jones, it should come as no surprise that she delivers yet another stunning and groundbreaking performance as Sister Aloysius, in John Patrick Shanley’s new play “Doubt” at the Manhattan Theater Club. It is not running very much longer, though there are rumors of a move, but even the rule-obsessed Sister Aloysius would condone anything short of mortal sin to secure a ticket.

The play takes place in the fall of 1964 when Sister Aloysius, is the head of the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. She has become convinced that Father Flynn has had inappropriate contact with one of the boys—the first African-American boy to attend the parochial school—and will not rest until she has dealt with him, regardless of the truth in the matter.

Short and astonishingly powerful, the play is also a meditation on the dangers of acting on belief rather than fact. Shanley has written a compact, focused and disturbing play that kept me on the edge of my seat and was so affecting that I realized at one point that my fists were clenched and my heart pounding. How wonderful is that?

What is so chilling about the play is how Shanley dispassionately dissects the power of gossip and the ego-driven certainty that drives shameless and destructive acts. Until the very end, Sister Aloysius admits not a scintilla of doubt that her cause is just, and that the collateral damage she wreaks on her path is an inevitable part of doing God’s work.

Jones is truly terrifying as Sister Aloysius. The focus and fire of her certitude infects the air of the world she dominates. We feel the fear she prides herself in inflicting, and there is not a moment of her performance that is not suffused with the character’s truth, as horrible as it is. She is not alone in delivering on Shanley’s script.

Brian F. O’Byrne is wonderful as Father Flynn, a very human priest and no match for the fury of Sister Aloysius. He represents the compassion that the zealots would kill but which is required in the temporal world. Heather Goldenhersch delivers a subtle and multi-layered performance as Sister James, and Adriane Lenox is extraordinary as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy Sister Aloysius thinks has been abused.

As he did in “Frozen” last season, director Doug Hughes goes for the soul of each character, drawing fine performances out of each actor and sustaining a tension throughout the piece that is at times nearly unbearable. But that’s what happens when you watch someone who places themselves beyond doubt, beyond reproach and beyond question by taking on God’s role as judge and crusader.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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