What Do You Think?

 

Doubt and the Catholic Church

“Doubt” tells a fascinating and very topical story in its swiftly paced 90 minutes, and it is an interesting show for Georgetown University to tackle, given its subject matter.  It is a very easy play to follow, until you start thinking about it.

Then nothing appears simple or straightforward.

This ambiguity won “Doubt” a ton of awards (Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award) but makes it a very difficult show to pull off.  Individual audience members can form their own opinions, but the production cannot.  It must walk a fine line presenting all sides of the questions honestly and forcefully, but if the production starts to take sides, the show is ruined.

And director Maya Roth and her talented cast pull off this tricky feat very well.  It allows the play to be what it really is – crystal clear on the surface, but very cloudy and messy the more you dig.

The play set in 1964, just after the Civil Rights March and the assassination of President Kennedy, and while Vatican II was still in motion.  Those were very heady and unsettling times for Americans, especially Catholics.  A Bronx parochial school has its first African American student, and Principal Sister Aloysius has suspicions that the new priest Father Flynn has taken an unhealthy interest in the boy, and not just simple friendship.  Sister Aloysius means to put a stop to it before things get out of hand, and the battle lines are drawn.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley is perhaps best known for his screenplay for “Moonstruck” and he certainly knows this New York City environment very well.  He can also come up with believable characters and great confrontation scenes.  For such a simple story, Shanley covers a lot of ground.  Sister Aloysius is a no nonsense nun of the old school, getting laughs from the audience as she rails about the decline of civilization thanks to ballpoint pens and uncut finger nails. 

Father Flynn is younger and more charismatic - his less formal approach is more in tune with the sixties and with the goals of Vatican II.   The two people could hardly be more different, and are instantly suspicious of each other.  Meanwhile a new teacher at the school, Sister James, often gets caught in the middle, but also acts as a foil for the other characters.  Still, for all the laughter and great confrontation scenes, the question remains: is Father Flynn guilty or is Sister Aloysius on a modern day witch hunt?

Maya Roth directs the play smoothly and keeps all options open throughout the script.  She is greatly helped by her well-chosen cast.  Maddie Kelley makes Sister Aloysius hard as nails and the driving force of the story, but allowing us occasional glimpses of the chinks in her armor.  Addison Williams (alternating with Caleb Lewis) makes Father Flynn her exact opposite in so many ways, but not without his vulnerabilities too.  Their big confrontation scenes prove to be battle royals.

But Elizabeth Burton Jones makes Sister James a critically important character.  Her alliances shift back and forth while her doubts mirror the audience’s concerns.  She also proves someone the other characters can confide in so we get their reasoning and motives.  While she is in only one scene, Marlene Cox as the boy’s mother makes it a barnburner scene.  As appropriate for this play, the scene between the mother and Sister Aloysius resolves nothing, and makes matters even murkier.

There is a lovely set design by Luciana Stecconi, with plants shaped like a large cross center stage.  It serves as the parish garden but also as a dividing line between characters.  Sliding panels in the back reveal Sister Aloysius’ office, where much of this play takes place.

My only real criticism is an occasional moment when a character walks center stage and addresses the audience more than the other characters on stage.  For such a realistic play, these moments feel a little false, but that can be smoothed out as the production proceeds.

One of the reasons “Doubt” was a big hit last decade was timing – it came out as the news of the pedophilia scandal rocked the Catholic Church.   But the full name of the play is “Doubt: a Parable,” and more than one critic noted, there are other things going on here that are indirectly suggested.  Note there is a generation gap here, a liberal versus conservative mindset, and the fact that women have limited options in this male dominated world. 

This decade old play also came out in the middle of the George W Bush administration, when opinions about the Iraq War were in flux, so doubts of a very different nature were floating in the background of this story that have nothing to do with priests and nuns.  How much the playwright intended that is open to question, but parables can be adapted to showcase all sorts of morals.

That’s an awful lot to pack into a 90 minute play with just four characters, but this production manages to pull it off and make it look easy at the same time.

“Doubt” runs in repertory with “Insurrection: Holding History” through April 12.  All performances are at the Davis Performing Arts Center’s Gonda Theatre at Georgetown University.  For tickets, call 202-687-ARTS (2787) or go online to http://performingarts.georgetown.edu/

4 stars

David Cannon

Mocovox Entertainment Critic

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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