Nemasket River Productions first show of their 12th season is John Patrick Shanley's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Doubt". The play is set in the fictional St. Nicholas Church School, in the Bronx, during the fall of 1964. It opens with a sermon by Father Flynn, a beloved and progressive parish priest, addressing the importance of uncertainty, doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty, he says. The schools' principal, Sister Aloysius, a rigidly conservative nun vowed to the order of the Sisters of Charity, insists upon constant vigilance. Aloysius and Father Flynn are put into direct conflict when she learns from Sister James that the priest met one-on-one with Donald Muller, St. Nicholas' first Negro student. Mysterious circumstances lead her to believe that sexual misconduct occurred. In a private meeting purportedly regarding the Christmas pageant, Aloysius, in the presence of Sister James, openly confronts Flynn with her suspicions. He angrily denies wrong-doing. Aloysius is unsatisfied with Flynn's story. Directed wonderfully by Pamela Lambert, she shows her talented cast how to examine the multiple layers found in each of their roles, blocking and directing them on a gorgeous unit set. A spontaneous standing ovation is its reward for moving the audience to laughter and tears at the appropriate moments. Brava on a job well done.
The doubt versus certainty theme's broader significance is underscored by having the story unfold through the prism of the 1960's, a period marked by the Kennedy assassination trauma and the doubts it seeded about who killed the president and why; a period that also brought social change throughout the land and within the Catholic Church. The second Vatican Council had also taken place with the Latin Mass turned into English with traditionalist opposing the secular view of Catholicism. In "Doubt" the supposed victim, Donald Muller is the first African-American boy admitted to the all-white school. There is only one suspect priest and though he may be guilty, it is not an open and shut, beyond a doubt case. He has something hidden in his past and though we never find out what it is, the audience must decide who they believe. In fact Father Flynn is a more sympathetic character than Sister Aloysius, the righteous nun who is certain that he represents a danger to the boys in the eighth grade. She disapproves of his long finger nails, his use of a ball point pen and liking secular music for the Christmas pageant. She rules the school with an iron fist and first runs rough shod over Sister James, a young new teacher. Her hair-raising scenes with Father Flynn, Sister James and Mrs. Muller are topnotch and the mother's contradictory beliefs about her son's inclinations and the separate path, she and the mother seek becomes clear. Aloysius is a formidable woman whose veneer begins to crack when the angry mother stands up to her and this scene adds dimension to the play.
The show is presented in two acts and the ninety minutes just fly by very quickly with the intensity and wit of this topnotch cast. Linda Monchik makes Sister Aloysius into human dynamo with her acting. She mines the layers of her intractable character for the core of humanity that makes her accessible especially in the last scene of the show when she is finally moved to tears. Steve Shannon is excellent as Father Flynn. He tackles the role of this young priest with gusto. Steve usually appears in musicals but shows his acting chops for drama in this show with extremely impressive sermons on doubt which opens the show and intolerance after his first confrontation with Sister Aloysius. He gives the priest the humanity needed to enthrall the audience and his last scene with Linda is electrifying. The third performer in this show is Kathleen Suwalski as Sister James, the novice teaching nun. She trembles under the questioning by the older nun and then agrees willingly with her to find something sinister in the relationship between the boys and the priest. Her youthful fervor is one of this ugly situation's casualties, yet the way she deals with her loss of innocence adds to the power of the play. Kathleen has many strong scenes in the show with Linda and Steve. Jeanette Lake Jackson plays Mrs. Muller. She shines in this role, showing her strong acting ability. It was unheard of to stand up to a strong willed nun back then but it is definitely called for in this instance. I last reviewed her as Calpurnia in "To Kill a Mocking Bird" at Company Theatre in 2006. Rounding out the cast is Kaelin Andrews, Lee Goff, Cassie Jordan and Jake Kaufman as the students who appear in several scenes including the basketball talk. So for an intelligent, well written, directed and acted show be sure to catch "Doubt". Tell them Tony sent you.