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‘Doubt’ Is a Winner

By Jamie Ferris, Housatonic Times


There aren't many local theaters brave enough to stage a play that became an Academy Award-nominated film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman only a year ago. But TheatreWorks New Milford never shies away from a challenge, and any doubts about its decision were swept away when the lights came up opening night on its production of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer and Tony-Award-winning drama, "Doubt: A Parable."

With a stellar cast, brilliant set design and unwavering direction by Alicia Dempster, "Doubt" is among the most thought-provoking, powerful and engrossing dramas TheatreWorks has staged to date.

Set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, "Doubt" revolves around the character and fate of Father Flynn (J. Scott Williams), a friendly new priest who believes the clergy should be considered "as members of the family" to its congregation, rather than iron-fisted dealers of doctrine. This progressive view is in direct conflict with that of Sister Aloysius (Noel Desiato), the dictatorial principal who prefers discipline over compassion with the school's students. She runs the school rigidly and tells history teacher Sister James (Jessica Lea Alex), whom she enlists in proving her suspicions, that the students should fear rather than admire her.

Conflict mounts when Sister Aloysius ruthlessly pursues her suspicions regarding Father Flynn, suggesting, without a shred of proof, that he is molesting the only African-American boy in her school. What comes in the final scenes, which includes a confrontation with the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (Stephanie Jackson), is a shocking and unexpected admission of guilt.

What makes "Doubt" so unique is its lack of a happy ending, forcing the audience to draw its own conclusions about what it has witnessed. Is the truth expressed by a nun so invested in church doctrine and her own monumental misgivings, or is it reflected by the cordial, forward-thinking priest she is so eager to condemn?

On the surface, the show appears to tackle the trifecta of religion, race and sexism, but "Doubt" delves much deeper by exploring human nature. It becomes a morality tale, a thriller, mystery and outstanding drama-with a hint of comedy-all wrapped up in one fiery package. And as the show's quest to find the truth continues, the lines of morality and sin quickly blur. As Father Flynn points out, "The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion."

Conflicting viewpoints and the austere setting-a school office and courtyard/grotto-provide an interesting platform to explore the personalities of these very different people and the themes that drive the production.

Noel Desiato is commanding as the ever-stern Sister Aloysius, a woman who relies on rules and who is firm in her belief that she is always correct. She gives Sister Aloysius a steely, rapid-fire speech pattern, her words becoming ammunition against a man she believes is guilty.

This is perhaps most evident during her conversation with Mrs. Muller, portrayed by TheatreWorks newcomer Stephanie Jackson. While Ms. Jackson is on stage briefly, the revelations that emerge are shocking. With a brilliant demonstration of deference, she wonderfully portrays the mother of the young man Father Flynn has befriended. One can only hope this will be the first of many appearances by the actress on the TheatreWorks stage.

Jessica Lea Alex's Sister James plays beautifully opposite Ms. Desiato and Mr. Williams as the discouraged and frustrated Father Flynn. Both are repeatedly lashed by Sister Aloysius' rhetoric, but Ms. Alex beautifully portrays the utopian ideals and enthusiasm of a new teacher. As the show progresses, her naivety fades and she finds her own voice, realizing at the end that satisfaction is, indeed, a vice.

Returning to the TheatreWorks stage after an eight-year absence is J. Scott Williams as the pragmatic and amiable Father Flynn who prefers compassion to discipline, and that proves his undoing. Has Father Flynn acted inappropriately? We may never know, but Mr. Williams captures this man's integrity and eloquence beautifully. From his quiet conversations with Sister James to his explosive encounters with Sister Aloysius, he is a man who stands by his convictions, perhaps to the detriment of his career.

Alicia Dempster has crafted a thrilling morality tale on the TheatreWorks stage, with a beautiful and innovative set designed by Richard Pettibone and Scott Wyshynski. The creative set becomes reflective of the story itself, the office walls pulling back to reveal a grotto/courtyard, where the characters feel most at ease to peel back the layers of their own version of the truth.

Anyone who ever doubted the power of theater will not want to miss TheatreWorks' "Doubt," a passionate, pungent and thought-provoking drama that shows us that even in God's house, there are no easy answers.

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