Touching lives (or children?)
Doubt: A Parable
John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer/2005 Tony Award-winning drama Doubt: A Parable poses a troubling question: Is Father Flynn, the forward-looking Catholic priest doubling as a coach at the parish school, inappropriately involved with an eighth-grade boy? Or does that allegation spring from the suspicious mind of Sister Aloysius, an aging, dour disciplinarian void of gladness?
What makes Doubt so fascinating are its many unexpected twists and turns. When you arrive at the end, you have more questions than answers—more doubt than proof.
Adopting the theory that three heads are better than one, SN&R sent a trio to B Street Theatre to evaluate this first local production of Doubt, each bringing his or her own take on the play and the production:
Patti Roberts, who saw the debut production of Doubt on Broadway (and survived Catholic school): When I stumbled upon Doubt, the Broadway buzz had just begun and I had little knowledge of the story, which turned out to be a blessing. I was amazed at the confidence the playwright had in himself and his audience to believe in and stick to the strength of ambiguity.
Shanley’s choice of placing the story in a ’60s Catholic setting was inspired, right at the time when the Second Ecumenical Council at the Vatican pit the no-questions-asked old school against an emerging modern, hands-on church community. Coupling a daring, intriguing story with a top-notch cast resulted in an award-winning play, and both elements are evident in this B Street production. The pairing, and parrying, of B Street regular Kurt Johnson as Father Flynn and Catherine MacNeal as Sister Aloysius results in memorable theater moments.
Jeff Hudson, who recently read the script: I fixed on Father Flynn’s line (quietly delivered by Johnson), “Truth tends to make a bad sermon. It’s very confusing and has no clear conclusion.”
I also fixed on actress Erinn Anova (returning to her hometown for this production), playing the black mother of the eighth-grader. Anova has a single scene, but it changes everything, and I loved the way Anova stands tall and stares down a power figure. This scene is more powerful in performance than on the page.
I also flashed on Doubt as a link to the B Street’s inaugural show (Mass Appeal, early ’90s), which touched on suspected impropriety and generational differences in a Catholic setting. And I flashed on Capital Stage’s recent staging of one of Shanley’s other plays, the political satire Dirty Story, which dealt (very differently) with another “forbidden” topic: the Israeli/Arab conflict.
Kel Munger, who encountered the piece for the first time: I’ve got a huge crush on Cherry Jones, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Sister Aloysius in the Broadway production of Doubt, so although this play’s been on my radar, I didn’t expect the deftly handled collision of world views. I, too, was fascinated by Anova’s Mrs. Muller, a black mother attempting to stand by her son the best way she can in a racist society. There is a quiet rebellion in her performance that speaks volumes about the generation of Americans who broke segregation’s back.
But the purposeful devotion to ridding the world of dissent that MacNeal brings to the role of Sister Aloysius caught my attention. Her performance was tense in the finest sense of the word; I was struck by MacNeal’s portrayal of a vulnerable Aloysius, even as she roared her indictment of Father Flynn. This illuminated the rock and hard place the character found herself in as a woman in a religious hierarchy that severely limited her power. The children and naive Sister James (a subtle yet effective performance by Hesley Harps) might think Sister Aloysius was a force to be feared, but in the real world, as in the church, she has such limited power that she’s forced to resort to manipulation.
As always, the B Street’s production values left nothing to be desired, which I think made the performances all the more outstanding. As Shanley would have it, if we learn anything, it’s the danger of certainty.