Faith, hope and doubt

20th May 2005 at 01:00

This season's big Broadway hit is a raw story of child abuse in the Catholic church. Stephen Phillips meets the teacher who inspired the authorto speak out

New York theatre-goers currently packing out the hit Broadway play Doubt would scarcely guess that the real-life inspiration for its most endearing character is still teaching at a school nearby - almost half a century on from her fictional stage representation.

It was news to Sister Margaret McEntee, too, last November, when the veteran English and religious education teacher answered a phone call at the Brooklyn convent where she lives."Did you know you're on the first page of the New York Times arts section?" asked a former student, Geraldine Cunningham-Pare.

Come to think of it, there had been a picture of a nun wearing the old, distinctive full-length habit of her order, the Sisters of Charity, in the newspaper the other day. The play review also mentioned "Sister James", her old name before she'd switched to her baptismal name, Margaret, during the 1960s Vatican reform movement. And it mentioned a "Sister Aloysius", not a million miles from Sister Aloysia, the real-life headmistress at her old school, St Anthony's, in New York's Bronx.

"That was you," Geraldine Cunningham-Pare said. "And guess who wrote it? John Patrick Shanley." "Oh, little Johnny," Sister Margaret replied, recalling a six-year-old she'd taught as a 21-year old rookie teacher in 1956.

Geraldine Cunningham-Pare, a film critic for Catholic newspapers, had taken a keen interest in Mr Shanley's Hollywood and Broadway career. He'd won the Oscar for best screenplay in 1988 for the Cher movie, Moonstruck. "I think your 15 minutes of fame have begun," she told her former teacher.

It's been a rollercoaster ride ever since for Sister Margaret, aged 69 and still going strong at Greenwich Village's Notre Dame high school. Doubt has become one of the hottest tickets in New York. Last month it won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama, and it's tipped to land the Tony Award for best play, in Broadway's equivalent of the Academy Awards, on June 5. But the play is perhaps an unlikely box-office smash, confronting as it does the topical but still uncomfortable subject of sexual abuse in the Catholic church.

The Catholic church in the United States has been battered by stories of abuse inflicted on young people by its priests. Some parishes have been pushed to the brink of insolvency by compensation payouts to victims. And painful memories were stirred up by the spectacle of the former Boston cardinal Bernard Law - accused of presiding over the repeated reassignment of alleged paedophile priests to roles giving them access to children - officiating at Pope John Paul II's funeral last month.

In writing his fictional scenario, John Patrick Shanley, 54, drew partly on his experiences growing up in New York's Irish immigrant community. "These guys came out of the woodwork to young boys," he says. "In my case, it wasn't the clergy, but a teacher at a school subsequent to St Anthony's, who was enamoured of me but never crossed the line." A friend wasn't so lucky. After being abused he left the country. "He felt shamed, he had lost his pride".

Doubt is an intense 90-minute, one-act play, leavened by flashes of irreverent humour. Idealistic Sister James is the foil between the polarising characters of a charismatic priest with the common touch, Father Flynn, and a crusty, matriarchal headmistress, Sister Aloysius, who suspects him of abusing one of her pupils. Sister James is torn between the antagonists' clashing personalities and starkly opposing views of the Catholic ministry. Sister Aloysius conforms to an old-school view of boundaries between laity and clergy, decrying Flynn's efforts to reach out to the community.

It's a tension felt keenly by Sister Margaret, who recalls a run-in with the real-life Sister Aloysia, who reproached her as a new teacher for consorting with parents who'd come to school to pick up their children.

These days she wears civilian clothes, having shed the traditional nun's garb along with her male title.

Casting his former teacher's character in Doubt made perfect sense, says John Patrick Shanley, who, at 6ft 1in and with more than a passing resemblance to Liam Neeson, could be a leading man himself. "She was this fresh-faced young nun with this very benevolent attitude," he remembers.

Sister Margaret recalls Mr Shanley as a "loveable little kid". But she adds: "Thank God I didn't teach him in secondary school." By his own admission, Mr Shanley was no model pupil. He was banished from St Anthony's dining hall for food fighting, expelled from his secondary school, and dropped out of New York University to join the US Marines before returning to complete his studies. Despite the indelible impression left by his first teacher, he had misgivings about a meeting with her, brokered by Geraldine Cunningham-Pare, who contacted Mr Shanley via a website dedicated to their old neighbourhood. It wasn't so much the dark subject matter he'd cast her character into, but a distinctively American concern. "The word lawsuit crossed my mind," he explains. "There's the old accusation, `You stole my life'."

A phone conversation allayed his fears. "She was so thoughtful, quoting (Holocaust survivor) Ellie Weisel. I thought, `Oh, I'm fine. This is a complex, rich, life-affirming person'." Still, Mr Shanley was nervous when Sister Margaret attended a performance as his guest in January, the first time the two had met in 48 years. He positioned himself, incognito, behind a newspaper in the theatre foyer, like a spy awaiting a secret rendezvous.

"This man got up, folded his newspaper, walked towards me and said, `Sister James - oh my God, you don't look like I remember you'," says Sister Margaret. Inside the auditorium, staring at the mock-up of their old school (renamed St Nicholas) on stage, Mr Shanley was on the edge of his seat. "I had no idea what her reaction was going to be."

The guest was also unnerving for actress Heather Goldenhersh, who plays Sister James. "It was like having a rock star in the audience," she says.

They needn't have worried. Sister Margaret was flattered by the stage depiction and thrilled to be a dramatic muse. Ms Goldenhersh has since visited her at school. Hearing Sister Margaret talk about her sense of vocation has been a refreshing antidote to the often self-absorbed world of acting, she says.

Sister Margaret's classroom at Notre Dame, a private all-girls Catholic school where she prefaces each lesson with a prayer, is a world away from the blinking brashness of New York's theatre district around Times Square.

Leading a discussion on altruism and charity, she never raises her voice in coaxing comments from the class of 16-year-olds. Walking the corridors between lessons takes some time as she stops to ask students how they're doing and greets others, eager to say hello, with a ready smile. "My approach to teaching is relational - people before content," says Sister Margaret. "But content's very important," she adds quickly. "She relates morals to real life, so it's personal and we get a higher level of understanding," says one student. "She calls the kids, `cupcake'," says director of advancement Robert Grote.

Sister Margaret is enjoying her new-found celebrity. On a balmy evening last month, while the curtain's up on Broadway, John Patrick Shanley is the guest speaker at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, home to her convent.

The shrill din of Manhattan is just a distant hum on this picturesque campus beside the Hudson River. Sister Margaret and her family, friends and colleagues take pride of place at the front of the hall and then cameras roll for the Today Show, America's leading breakfast television programme, capturing the local-boy-made-good. After his speech Mr Shanley is mobbed by fans.

Nevertheless, Sister Margaret says she's encountered disapproval from some quarters. Some say Doubt brings up an unseemly subject, publicly airing "dirty laundry". "I say, go see it," she counters. "It opened my eyes."

In the play, her devout character is chided for being too gullible by her headmistress, who counsels that innocence can be a luxury amid lurking evil. Sister James, for whom entertaining such dark suspicions about someone is anathema, is plunged into an existential crisis. Ultimately, the audience is left guessing about whether "he did it", but Sister James is the character people identify with, says Sister Margaret. "She's the voice of reality, trying to step back and make an analysis of what's going on, and it's really hurting her."

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