John Patrick Shanley’s "Doubt" at New Milford TheatreWorks
Doubt is a somber four-character play about the conflict between the principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx and a young priest assigned to her parish. The drama opens with a sermon in which the priest extols the lack of surety about the most pressing life questions parishioners inevitably harbor. He declares that doubt itself can become a unifying force, since it forges a spiritual connection among the flock, precisely because of uncertainty.
The sermon sets the theme all four characters will grapple with in their uneven and often tortured relationships with each other. But Sister Aloysius Beauvier's suspicion that Father Brendan Flynn secretly molested a vulnerable young choir boy at the school, together with the priest's vehement denial of the allegation, is only one sticking point in a drama that intimates larger themes.
"Did he do it?" is only one issue among others hovering silently over the play's two adversaries. Among these is the split between an older Catholic sensibility, and a newer, more progressive Church spirit sparked by Vatican II. Sister may be outraged by sexual improprieties, but de-Latinization of the mass is probably another of the gripes among many she has about modernity.
When it comes to her own parish school, Sister feels Father is much too "friendly" toward his charges; he is not the stern, head-slapping, knuckle-rapping disciplinarian he ought to be in the capacity of a "fierce moral guardian." Chumminess with the students is a serious failing in her ever watchful eyes. Besides, Father uses new-fangled ball-point pens, and wants to secularize a church pageant with what Sister considers to be near heretical ditties like "Frosty the Snowman."
For Sister, Father Flynn had a suspicious mien about him from the outset, and her effort to rid her school of him becomes her driving, if not obsessional, ambition. She succeeds, but not without eleventh hour recriminations that seem tinged with the very doubts she decries as the failings of an age.
In the TheatreWorks production, Sister Aloysius is played by Noel Desiato, an experienced and savvy actress who was successful in capturing Sister's haughty, disdainful, and relentlessly assured attitude about events around her. Jessica Lea Alex as Sister James radiated alternating states of mind about Sister's efforts to get the goods on Father Flynn. This character is the only one in the drama for whom radical shifts of belief in an inherently guileless nun is the acting challenge. Ms. Alex was successful in depicting Sister James' vacillations.
J. Scott Williams as Father Brendan Flynn turned in an unusually strong performance, whether it was delivering the initial sermon to the audience, or defending himself vociferously against the allegations of Sister Aloysius.
The surprise performance was the one by Stephanie Jackson as Mrs. Muller, a black mother of the choir boy who is supposedly the victim in Sister's accusations against Father. Ms. Jackson gave a riveting characterization of a caring mother who was nonetheless thankful that her paternally abused son was being treated kindly by Father Flynn—whatever the nature of their relationship.
Ironically, Ms. Jackson's success in the role is reminiscent of the powerful and emotionally wrenching performance of Viola Davis in the film adaptation of Doubt. For what it's worth, this critic felt that Ms. Davis's characterization was the highlight of the film, although most critics seem taken with the performances of its celebrity leads: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Something similar may be said for Ms. Jackson's performance of steely resolve and poignant advocacy for Mrs. Muller's son. Evidently the opening night audience felt something similar: she received the most resounding applause at curtain call on opening night at TheatreWorks.
Doubt is—pardon the adverb—undoubtedly a work that seems crafted especially for the stage. It has that aspect of charged interactions among four characters best confined to parish rooms and offices, without the intrusions of outside elements that beleaguered its film adaptation. (The extraneous scene in the movie with Sister Aloysius presiding like a ill-tempered martinet over her nuns at dinner only succeeded in further flattening Sister Aloysius as a unidimensional character. No such effect narrowed the performance of Cherry Jones, the original Broadway lead in the role.)
Director Alicia P. Dempster handled her cast admirably, and positioned her characters to optimize the emotional flavor of their interactions. Richard Pettibone's and Scott Wyshynski's Set Design was intelligently sparse (although the centered desk in Sister's office might have been more advantageously catty-cornered Upstage Right, so that more room was available Center Stage for the action, while confrontations with Father Flynn might simulate the aspect of a court hearing). Brian Casella's Lighting Design and John Bolster's Lighting & Sound Execution enhanced ongoing action among the four characters, while Joseph Russo's Costume Design lent an air of authenticity to a parish ambience.