“What do you do when you’re not sure?” is a question posed by Father Flynn at the start of John Patrick Shanley’s award-winning play Doubt: A Parable. Ironically the answer to this question will determine Flynn’s fate when suspicions of child molestation arise in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964. This deeply-layered work never fully answers the question of his guilt but instead provokes the audience to consider issues of faith, morality, and justice.
Doubt: A Parable is a powerful and compelling drama, worthy of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards that it received. Local theatergoers who missed its first national tour should catch the play during the current run at Olney Theatre Center even if the production is not a fully inspired rendition.
Sister Aloyisius (Brigid Cleary) is the play’s driving force, a tough and controlling school principal who develops suspicions about Father Flynn. Flynn (James Denvil) is a charismatic and handsome young priest who represents all of the modernizing influences on the Church that Sister Aloyisius resists. Caught in the middle is the earnest and naïve Sister James (Patricia Hurley), a young teacher enlisted by Sister Aloyisius in her efforts to protect the first African American student at the school. Rounding out the cast is Mrs. Muller (Deidre LaWan Starnes), mother of the unseen student.
The action kicks in when Sister James reports a student returning to class with alcohol on his breath from a private meeting in the rectory with Father Flynn. Father Flynn denies the initial accusations but Sister Aloyisius refuses to drop the matter.
Doubt: A Parable is a wonderful vehicle for actors (all four roles in the Broadway production resulted in Tony nominations), and most of the cast delivers. Denvil’s Father Flynn can be both charming and slightly threatening, sympathetic and yet potentially guilty. Hurley’s Sister James provides a touching portrait of a young woman whose joy in teaching and her simple faith are increasingly undermined by this unpleasant situation. Finally, Ms. Starnes gives a powerful performance as Mrs. Muller in a devastating scene as a cowed mother with a surprisingly different perspective on what’s in the best interests of her son.
The ultimate success of the play depends upon the performance of Sister Aloyisius, a virtuoso role requiring depth and complexity. In Olney’s production Sister Aloyisius is not as old and rigid (and thus representative of the traditional church) as originally performed. While Ms. Cleary’s energetic portrayal is not necessarily out of place, this interpretation robs the character of some of her nobility and sacrifice as she risks a dangerous confrontation to protect her students.
As a result, the accusation of Father Flynn that Sister Aloyisius has a personal animus against him rings truer than it should. During their final confrontation I could imagine the Wicked Witch of the West saying “I’ll get you, my pretty priest – and your little dogma, too!” Similarly Sister Aloyisius’ lack of suffering over her responsibilities earlier in the drama renders her final emotional confession of doubts less than convincing.
Olney presents an attractive production of the play. Scenic designer James Wolk creates an impressive set which smoothly changes from scene to scene and fully utilizes the handsome space. The various religious costumes are appropriate and Mrs. Muller’s outfit accurately evokes the era. The lighting design effectively highlights the action, especially when Father Flynn appears alone on stage, and a series of sound effects are balanced and credible.
Doubt: A Parable is one of the finest works of drama written in the last decade, one that raises issues without being preachy and didactic. While you could choose to wait for the filmed version in December, the play benefits immensely from the immediacy of the stage. It is a rare work that will send you to the parking lot arguing with your friends over the outcome and the message, and you will be richer for having undergone the experience.
- Doubt: A Parable
- By John Patrick Shanley
- Directed by John Going
- Produced by Olney Theatre Company
- Reviewed by Steven McKnight
- Running Time: 1:30 (no intermission)
- Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD
- When: Tuesdays through Sundays until March 9, 2008
- Tickets: $25-$48
- Contact Info: Call 301-924-3400 or purchase on-line through Ticketmaster