Doubt, a Parable by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Kate Gulliver. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I know what I won't accept!"
In nine scenes played out over nearly 90 minutes, playwright John Patrick Shanley dissects the status of "opinion" and reveals the disease that underscores that illness and its effects. In the Town Players of Pittsfield's production of this play, under the deft direction of Kate Gulliver, the excellent four member cast gets to show us how difficult it is to exist in an atmosphere where opinion becomes fact. Doubt has already made it to the big screen with Meryl Streep in the lead of an excellent cast of character players. I haven't seen the film, nor had I seen any other stage production of this play. With the exception of a quick read-through of the script this was my first exposure to the work and its impact is high-level. The play wastes no time in revealing the status quo of its principal antagonists, Father Brendan Flynn and Sister Aloysius Beauvier. These People are definitely the oil and vinegar of the work; they do not easily mix but when they do they create a tasty sauce for the salad of their issues. She doesn not approve of his style, his charm, his rhetoric. He does not tolerate her interference, her curiosity, her tenacity over an issue regarding his imagined behaviour. We are in a Catholic school. At issue is the priest's treatment of a child, the only minority child in the school. A younger nun, confused the child's odd behaviour, consults her superior and inspires the older woman to take charge of an investigation that has not been summoned by any real evidence or obvious issue. Instead, she begins to doubt his motives in aiding a child through a crisis. Written since the many revelations of child abuse and sexual molestation by priests have absorbed the national press, it is revealed that the woman herself has doubts about her own sincere convictions, as she has discovered in this journey her own prejudices and her own frailty. Johnna Murray does a remarkable job in this role. She examines from the externals and internals of her character's motivationf the honesty and dishonesty in Sister Aloysius. With minimal gestures and a seething anger she combines her character's humanity and inhumanity. Not one false moment occurs in her playing here. It is the performance at the center of the play which holds us enthralled. Paul Murphy is the priest. He brings charm into the mix as he proclaims in sermons his personal philosphy through smiles, winks and gestures. We find the humor in the play held within his grasp and, as things are stipped away from him, and his own torturd humanity is revealed, those smiles, winks and gestures are remove one by one. Sister James - the younger nun whose confusion in a child's altered behaviour starts the process of destruction - is played beautifully by Brenda Galenus. The gentleness of soul that Sister James possesses shines in her exuberant performance. Caught in the power struggle between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, Galenus' Sister James finds more ways to avoid eye contact than would seem possible. Her inner remorse is palpable and aids in the progress of the play immensely. As Mrs. Muller, the mother of the child in question, Jenn Smith does a fine job of bringing to life the disbelief and anger that such questions as are addressed in this play must engender. There is a wonderful moment in her scene with Sister Aloysius when she reveals that her 12 year old son is most likely homosexual. In it Smith tucks her voice into her body, and her chin into her neck. She stands erect and proud, yet her disappointment in this revelation is clear. Without meaning to, she gives the nun her last bit of ammunition in this fight against Father Flynn and she knows it as she says it and we both know and sympathize with her very human error. Kate Gulliver has brought to the fore, without forcing any issues or any one moment, the difficulties experienced by the antagonistic protagonists in this play. She has carefully moved the players through the simple set, nicely designed, we assume, by Robert Boland. The costumes by Kyle Harvey, Vivian Wachsberger and Jean Barbas do what they need to do, especially the costume for Smith which defines the period of the play, 1964, perfectly. Sean Sliney and Rob Dumais have done a fine job lighting the play; their simplicity and starkness create a harsh light that is perfect for the text. This play is a tough one, emotional and accusative, but a worthwhile experience. If, like me, you haven't seen the movie, wait it out and see the Town Players edition - then move on to the film. Being upfront and close, virtually a fly on the wall at Barrington Stage Company's second stage space where the Town Players are in residence, makes a difference, I suspect.
Doubt, a Parable plays at Barrington Stage Company's Stage Two agt 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through April 25. For schedules and tickets ($15) call the box office at 413-443-9279.