How Amy Ryan made an undeniable mark in 'Doubt' on Broadway

The Oscar-nominated actor, who joined the cast of the critically acclaimed revival on short notice, talks about stepping into the play's revered lead role.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Tucked inside the heavy black wool habit she’s worn eight times a week since mid-February as Sister Aloysius in Doubt on Broadway, actor Amy Ryan feels “safe and guarded,” she said. “It’s like a superhero cape.”

Considering that Ryan stepped up last-minute to inhabit the lead role, superhero-saves-the-day style, the metaphor fits.

On February 2, the night of the show's planned first performance, Tony and Emmy Award-winning star Tyne Daly left the revival due to illness. But the show must go on, and John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning drama leans heavily on its leading lady. Isabel Keating — Daly’s understudy, a Tony nominee for The Boy from Oz, and an unflappable pro — covered the part from February 3-11.

Enter Ryan, an Oscar nominee for Gone Baby Gone and a well-known actor in The Office, The Wire, and Bridge of Spies. She was about to leave New York for a winter getaway to Colorado with her family. In a dramatic plot twist, a casting director reached out.

“I got a call late Sunday night from Jim Carnahan, who’s an old friend of mine," Ryan recalled. "He said, ‘What are you doing next week?’ I said, ‘We’re going skiing.’ And he said, ‘Do you think you could postpone your trip?’”

A call also came from director Scott Ellis. “I told her this is a big ask because I’d have to know by Monday — the next day — if she was saying yes, so we could start rehearsals on Tuesday," he said. "And on Monday, she said yes. I found her decision incredibly moving and brave.”

Ryan's family hit the slopes while she tackled a different black diamond-level challenge: A crash course in Sister Aloysius. That included watching Keating play the part twice. “Hats off to her; she was extraordinary,” said Ryan. “She was so great to me.”

Played first on Broadway in 2005 by Cherry Jones and later in the movie by Meryl Streep, Aloysius is the conservative, prickly principal of a Catholic boys’ school in 1964 in the Bronx. She's convinced Father Flynn, a progressive priest, behaved inappropriately with a student. A holy war of wills erupts in the 90-minute play.

“I saw it years ago, and I saw the film,” said Ryan, adding with a laugh that she’d gotten an opening-night invitation from Roundabout Theatre Company for the current revival.

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To prepare, Ryan focused on the script and worked with the actors including Liev Schreiber, who plays Father Flynn; Zoe Kazan, who plays young and impressionable Sister James; and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who plays the allegedly abused student’s mother.

“I said, ‘Please just allow me to be really bad because I’ve got to take big swings here.’ They were gracious and supportive and cool as cucumbers.” On February 13, Ellis announced Ryan’s first performance pre-show. It was nerve-wracking, she admitted.

“I’ve had the recurring, stressful actor’s nightmare where you join a new cast,” Ryan said. “The curtain goes up and the rest of the cast is off-book, and then I say, ‘What? I thought we were doing a read-through!’”

To forge her take on Aloysius, Ryan channeled her maternal aunt Janice. “She’s from Queens, not the Bronx,” the actor said. “She’s got a wicked sense of humor. She’s not a woman who shrinks; she stands her ground.”

For moments when Aloysius is seated at her desk, Ryan’s script was within reach for a number of performances. “I’d turn the page when the other actors were speaking,” she said. “I figured the audience’s attention was on them – nothing to see here.”

Eventually, Ryan no longer needed the script as a crutch. In mid-March, she had a delightful epiphany. “That’s when I went, ‘Oh my God, this is fun.’”

Ryan has had that same feeling often on stage and screen, where her straight-up, no-nonsense acting approach has become her signature. In her first two roles on Broadway in the '90s, she took over key characters in The Sisters Rosenzweig and Three Sisters. Since then, she’s been up for two Best Featured Actress Tonys, both for Roundabout productions: 2000's Uncle Vanya 2005's A Streetcar Named Desire.

These days, Ryan is right at home in her habit – and the meaty role — in what she calls “a group effort.” New York Theatre Guide’s reviewer described Ryan as “indomitable” in Doubt.

“A great part of the story is that Tyne is well,” said Ryan, adding that Daly, who is on her way to recovery, sent her a note of encouragement.

Ryan also treasures a message from Shanley, “which was full of, ‘You did it, kid.’ If the playwright’s happy, great. We did our job.”

Amen to that.

Discover more spring preview content on New York Theatre Guide and learn about all the Broadway shows this season.

Photo credit: Doubt on Broadway. (Photos by Joan Marcus)

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