note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
In the past few years, I’ve seen three productions of John Patrick Shanley’s provocative one-act, 90-minute multi-award winning play, “Doubt, A Parable,” in large and small venues. They all boasted superb casts and subtle effects. Nothing more is needed.
The play is set in 1964, but is equally compelling today, pulsating with mounting tension. Theatergoers are rapt, from its opening sermon to its cloudy conclusion.
And it’s never the same. Each theater company creates its own take on Shanley’s expose’ of highly sensitive issues and circumstances surrounding the Catholic Church - its male hierarchy, education system, inner politics, sparring philosophies, and the pedophilia scandal that even now rocks, cracks, and compromises the Church’s foundation. Shanley add racial and homophobic innuendoes to the mix.
There are many layers of doubt in this fast-paced drama that earned Shanley the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Drama Desk Award, and four Tony Awards.There’s the battle between the “old school,” don’t-bend-the-rules educational philosophy and today’s progressive, child-centered, make learning fun approach.
Vibrant new priest Father Flynn wants to topple longtime Principal Sister Aloysius’ rigid regime at St. Nicholas Grammar School in the Bronx, while Sister Aloysius vehemently insists her teaching strategy is the right way - the only way - and wants to squash enthusiastic Sister James’ happy, more lenient approach with her students. Make the brightest children work harder, Aloysius insists. Be more conservative - less sunshiny.
Aloysius is even more critical and suspicious of Father Flynn’s vibrant sermons on the pulpit and his likable, caring approach to students, especially his coaching boys basketball and taking a special interest in (unseen) Donald Muller, the school’s only African-American, 12-year-old male student, who feels “different,” withdrawn, and excluded by the other students in this half-Irish, half-Italian parish school.
Sister James noticed that after a brief session with Father Flynn, the boy returned to her class, visibly upset, she says. And she thought she smelled alcohol on his breath.
Sister James’ observation ticks off Sister Aloysius’ vendetta against the ambitious priest, hoping to use it as fodder against him. She’s embittered because her power is limited in the Church’s male-dominated hierarchy, despite her longtime accomplishments. Besides, Father Flynn intends to incorporate too many changes, like including secular winter songs like (Heaven forbid)! “Frosty The Snowman” in the annual school Christmas pageant,
Not only that, but he irritatingly makes notations of their conversations in his little notebook - to use in upcoming sermons, he says. But Sister Aloysius knows better. Surely this flamboyant priest with contemporary ideas, long fingernails and takes three sugars in his tea, is up to no good!
Regardless of his plausible-sounding explanations, Sister Aloysius ramps up her accusations against Father Flynn, resulting in a shouting match. He insists he did nothing wrong and threatens to charge her with character assassination.
Boston’s beloved award-winning Karen MacDonald portrays Sister Aloysius with the unruffled consternation of the old-fashioned nuns on a mission to squelch enthusiasm and frivolity; while award-winning Gabriel Kuttner as Father Flynn is captivating, especially in his key sermons and screaming matches.
Kathryn Miles is believably excitable, enthusiastic and mild-mannered as Sister James, who gets caught between the sparring school administrators.
Does Sister Aloysius feels her authority is threatened by Father Flynn? Is she deliberately creating suspicion about him to facilitate his removal, or is she genuinely concerned about the boy? She just knows these things, she insists.
Even after an emotionally-charged, tell-all meeting with the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (marvelously portrayed by award-winner Miranda Craigwell), Sister Aloysius refuses to recant her charges, regardless of its damaging consequences to the boy.
Her final words to Sister James invoke insight, but not answers.
One thing is certain, though. Audiences will be talking about and praising Stoneham Theatre’s stirring production, long after the final curtain descends.
BOX INFO: One-act, 90-minute Pulitzer Prize-winning play, written by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Caitlin Lowans; appearing through Sept. 28, at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham. Performances: Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets, $45-$50; seniors, $40-$45; students with valid IDs, $15. Call 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.