John Patrick Shanley’s thought-provoking dialectic on the dead-end of certainty vs. the revelatory nature of doubt is masterfully handled by director Michael Dove in a production at Tysons’ 1st Stage.
Shanley’s engrossing mousetrap is a whirl of ideas: Set in 1964, the 90-minute one-act takes on the struggle between men and women, stasis and change, faith and doubt.
The opening scene—a sermon on the self-awareness of dubiety, no less—is the first volley in a tightly scripted, stirring debate that alternately sings with airy righteousness and reaches deep into suppressed hollows.
Doubt is indeed parable, an illustrative portrait of human behavior, but also a cross-examination, a discourse on the objective standard, and a tête-a-tête between all too human foils.
Set in a parochial school in the Bronx, the play is constructed as a series of suspenseful arguments for and against the effective virtues of starched traditionalism as represented by the unyielding Sister Aloysius (Jessica Lefkow) and progressive reform represented by the New Frontier man Father Flynn (Rob Jansen). The natural tension between the two poles leads to the plot’s driving force, the accusation that Flynn may be molesting a child.
Aloysius sees herself as a guardian, telling her subordinate Sister James (Jenny Donovan) that “Innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil,” while Flynn believes engagement with the flock is the way to reach hearts and minds. Both have given themselves to service, but are in conflict over the surest way to serve. What’s great from a dramatic point of view is that they’re both reformers and they’re both deniers, both proofed against the disruptive intrusions of others.
The drama soars on strong performances from the four-person cast, especially from Jansen, and after some initial flightiness, from Lefkow.
Jansen is scarily perfect throughout, a steely cipher in a layered performance—affable and declamatory spread over a malevolent edge—his reactions to his accuser show an outstanding range from charming manipulation to barely concealed rage. His quicksilver smooth sermons are exactingly delivered.
Lefkow is mostly strong in the key role of the accuser Aloysius. Her character is the play’s compass, bringing the audience into the story, setting up the rules, delivering the comic lines and driving the drama forward.
She exhibited some self-consciousness as the play opened, but settled down and got better as the stakes were raised higher and higher. Another delight in her characterization is the unveiling of Aloysius from stock comical figure to the underdog making a stand through cleverness and strength of will.
Donovan’s Sister James is the likable, impressionable contrast to Aloysius. While I assume she’s the relateable favorite of audiences, she can also represent the terrifying middle ground, the paralyzed segment of society that cannot deal with the troubling implications of doubt, and in effect offer complicity to those seeking to take advantage.
Lolita Marie is powerful and compelling as Mrs. Muller, the starkly realist mother of the boy at the heart of the storm. Marie’s performance in a standoff scene with Lefkow is a standout, a silver bullet reminder of the complexity of human nature. Her brief, drop-in role is an explosive starting agent to the simmering fire of what came before, both in plot and ideas.
Feb 6 – March 1
1st Stage Theatre
1524 Spring Hill Road
McLean, VA 22102
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
It must be said that I had never seen the play or the celebrated Hollywood adaptation of it before, giving the visceral struggle between nun and priest an edge-of-your-seat quality which I can only assume would be diminished with future viewings.
That said, the exercise of enjoyment could lie in the interpretation. Did he or didn’t he? On a particular night it may seem to fall like this. On another, like that.
Frankly, it’s not meant to be certain, as the eloquent Father Flynn reminds us: “The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion.”
Doubt, a Parable by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Michael Dove. Featuring Jessica Lefkow, Rob Jansen, Jenny Donovan and Lolita Marie. Set Design: John Bowhers. Costume Design: Brittany Graham. Lighting Design: Kyle Grant. Sound Design: Thomas Sowers. Props Design: Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa. Stage Manager: Tre Wheeler. Produced by 1st Stage. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.