Fine acting in New Milford 'Doubt'
John Patrick Shanley's award-winning drama "Doubt," now at TheatreWorks in New Milford, is a chilling example of morality gone mad. What is it about righteousness that causes the heart to go cold, and moral certainty to blind the mind to reason?
"Doubt" may be a familiar story of a witch hunt, but it is beautifully crafted here with its unsettling premise about suspicions that escalate into accusations and judgments reached without fair trial.
The accuser in "Doubt" is Sister Aloysius (Noel Desiato), who heads the nuns who teach at St. Nicholas, a Catholic high school associated with a church of the same name in the Bronx in 1964.
The accused is Father Flynn (J. Scott Williams), the parish priest who irritates Sister Aloysius with his compassionate approach to relations between the clergy and students and parishioners of St. Nicholas.
When she persuades Sister James (Jessica Lea Alex) that Flynn is not to be trusted – "leading the witness" is the legal term – the young novice finally rises to the bait and describes a curious incident that occurred between the priest and a new male student, the one black boy in the school.
It's enough of an opening for Sister Aloysius to decide the priest is "interfering" with (an oblique term for molesting) the boy, and she's off on her broomstick.
The play is divided into scenes of confrontation between the nun and the priest, both standing their ground. Flynn vehemently denies any wrongdoing, while Aloysius is adamant he is guilty.
Although Sister Aloysius comes off as a cold-hearted monster, the possibility that there is truth in the accusations rises slowly to the surface. In Flynn's several monologues (well delivered by Williams) there is the hint of something amiss.
The acting is first rate. Desiato, who scored a knockout with the critics and audiences in two TheatreWorks shows last season, "Tea at Five" and "Suddenly Last Summer," proves again that she is one of, if not the best actress in the region.
Williams, who has the more nuanced role, plays Flynn with an intriguing mix of masculine bonhomie and curious softness – it's a persona that plays right into his accuser's hands.
As the caught-in-the-middle Sister James, Alex impressively registers confusion over her responsibilities to the order and to truth itself.
There is a late arrival in this tidy 90-minute drama, Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy at the center of the storm. As played by Stephanie Jackson, she comes off as wise and wary.
Alicia P. Dempster is the director, and she's steered her cast with intelligence and compassion. I would quarrel, however, with the emphasis put on the scenery.
The TheatreWorks production can boast beautifully turned out sets (courtesy of producer Richard Pettibone), but putting the brake on the drama again and again for noisy if efficient scene changes, saps the tension.
Sister Aloysius's credo when justifying her persecution of Father Flynn is indeed scary – "When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service."
In other words, evil committed in the name of good is not evil. How convenient!