The titular doubt in John Patrick Shanley’s classic play, now being given a rigorous yet nuanced treatment at Studio Theatre, is not about whether the intense, charismatic Father Brendan Flynn (the intense, charismatic Christian Conn) is guilty of the ghastly crime which Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Sarah Marshall) accuses him of committing. It is not even the doubt that Sister Aloysius utters in the play’s heartbreaking final scene, over the moral institution to which she has committed her entire life.
No, it’s even broader and more terrifying. It’s doubt about whether the social order we’ve claimed for ourselves — here represented by the reforms of Vatican II but far more far-reaching than that — has put us all in mortal peril, body and soul.
The Second Vatican Council revolutionized the Catholic Church in many ways, but to reduce it to a single phrase, Vatican II opened the institutional Church to its believers. Where before the Church conducted its services in Latin, a language spoken only by the Priesthood and a few elite laymen, it was thereafter conducted in the common language of its people, wherever they were. Where before the priest had his back to the congregation during the Mass, he faced the people thereafter. Where before the priest was remote, authoritarian, and severe, afterward he was to be a man of the people, a friendly and pastoral figure. Prior to Vatican II, for a Catholic to call a priest by his first name, even with the honorific “Father”, would have been as exotic as cannibalism.
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Not everyone embraced those changes. In this play — set in 1964, months after the deaths of Pope (now Saint) John XXIII and the killing of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic President — Sister Aloysius represents the resistance. Although she is loyal to her vow of obedience, you can tell the new order rankles with her. (She has a photograph of Pope [now Saint] Paul VI on the wall over her radiator in Daniel Conway’s brilliant set, rather than set in some more prominent place.) She is principal of St. Nicholas elementary school, a mission she seems to consider akin to that of a Marine Drill Sergeant with a load of new recruits. There may be something worth saving there, but only after much scrubbing and banging around.
She is old school, in the sense that the Paleolithic era could be considered olden times. She does not allow ball-point pens because they are too easy to use; they encourage the students to laziness and they will write, she assures, “like monkeys.” She will not permit the children to sing “Frosty the Snowman” at the Christmas pageant, because it is a pagan song. After all, doesn’t he come to life after he receives a magic hat? And she terrorizes an eighth-grade teacher, Sister James (Amelia Pedlow), not because she is a bad instructor but because she is too good: her sparkling presentations distract the students from their own failings.
In all of this she is opposed by Father Flynn, who not only embraces the Church’s new openness but embodies it. Flynn is a powerful, empathetic preacher — the play opens with one of his sermons, in which he beautifully describes the dilemma of a sailor who sees the sky perfectly one night, and plots his course by it, but who begins to lose faith in his path as the sky is thereafter covered with clouds night after night, and in so doing allows his congregation (and us) to realize the universality of doubt. He is also a man with a sly and gentle wit; a mentor to the school’s sometimes rambunctious boys, and a good basketball coach. Sister James is one of many who love who he is and what he represents: the freedom to be their own best selves as they love and serve God, rather than living within Sister Aloysius’ rigid restrictions.
Their differences are made plain in an early encounter. Father Flynn casually remarks that they should show that they are no different than the laypeople in the congregation, and the mild shock in Sister Aloysius’ face — “We are different,” she says — gives out a world of context: if we are no different than the laity, guided as they are by the pleasure principle,what is the point of all the comfort and joy we have sacrificed?
But there is a more immediate cause for Father Flynn to fall into Sister Aloysius’ crosshairs. Father Flynn took one of the eighth-graders — the school’s first African-American student — into the Rectory with him. And when the boy came back to Sister James’ class, he had a look of terror on his face, and the smell of alcohol on his breath.
Sister Aloysius is convinced that Flynn is molesting the boy, and neither the priest’s plausible denials nor the disinterest of the boy’s mother (Tiffany M. Thompson) in any process which might bring her son’s adolescent sexual inclinations to light deter her from her resolution to expose Father Flynn and get him removed from the school.
Doubt is scheduled to close October 20, 2019. Details and tickets
Director Matt Torney has taken a somewhat unconventional approach to three of the characters, but his choices (and theirs) make sense. Sister James is usually played as a naïf, and generally by an actor who presents in her early or mid-twenties, but Pedlow gives us a more mature nun, consistent with her skill as a teacher. Pedlow is terrific, incidentally, as a character who struggles with the conflict between her love for the change Father Flynn represents and her obligations to a twelve-year-old boy who might be being sodomized.
Thompson also has a distinct spin to her performance as the child’s mother, who has a brief but powerful scene with Sister Aloysius. Hyper-articulate, impeccably dressed and coiffed (Wade Laboissonniere is the costume designer; hair is uncredited), her Mrs. Muller represents precisely the sort of African-American mother who would have sent her child to a private Catholic school in 1964. When she slips into non-standard English — as Shanley’s script requires — it takes on an ominous edge, as though she is reminding Sister Aloysius that she has seen rough times and has surmounted them. It does not happen often, but in Thompson’s Mrs. Muller, Sister Aloysius has met her match.
Which brings me to the character of Sister Aloysius herself. Traditionally, Sister Aloysius is played as though she was a human Abrams Tank, furiously dismembering and dismissing whoever dares to oppose her. Sarah Marshall, a regional treasure, softens Sister Aloysius up considerably. Her predominant characteristic is not rage or arrogance but frustration; she knows she is fighting a losing battle and it is clear that she does not have a taste for lost causes. Her voice breaks; and you can see her apprehension. When Father Flynn throws out one of his nostrums, a look as though she had been punched in the stomach passes over her face for a millisecond. When Sister James tells her that everyone fears her, she takes in the information not with satisfaction, as is traditional, but with a sort of weary acceptance. As Marshall plays her, Sister Aloysius does not aspire to be hated or feared; she acquiesces to those reactions as a consequence of her fidelity to her principles, which she believes were given to her by God. It makes the final scene, and her confession to Sister James, as powerful as it can possibly be.
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In the production I attended, several of Sister Aloysius’ more radical pronouncements provoked the audience to laughter, a reaction I had not seen in previous productions. Marshall, an excellent comic actor, certainly knows how to draw the laughter out of a line, but something else is at work, too — the passage of time. Characters like Sister Aloysius haunted the dreams of Catholic schoolboys in 1964 — including, I suspect, Shanley’s. But there are fewer and fewer of us now than when Shanley wrote this in 2004, and so to modern audiences she may seem a bit unreal. Brothers and sisters, believe me: Sister Aloysius was as real in 1964 as global warming is today.
Conn — who you may remember as the bewitched director in Studio’s Venus in Fur — plays Father Flynn the only way he can be played: sharp, dynamic and confident in the way that only those who believe that they represent the future can be. His Flynn could be a good friend, but would be a bad enemy. It is almost as hard to be charismatic on stage as it is to be charismatic in person, but Conn nails it.
It would be easy to box this play up as a parable about the Catholic Church, and its troubles, but it is more than that. It is about the consequences of informality, and of the leveling instinct which has taken us over since midpoint of the last century. If you call your boss by his first name, or wear business casual to work, or eat dinner in front of the television or the computer, or send Instagram messages while you’re talking to your mother, or insult world leaders via your twitter account, then you have participated in the same breakdown of protocols that so vexed Sister Aloysius.
Accompanying this thoughtful take on this play and the high-value performances, Studio presents its usual excellent technical. Victoria Deiorio’s sound design was particularly compelling and everything is sumptuous. But even if it was not I would recommend that you see this play, and more than once, for this reason: it is good to have your assumptions challenged. It is good to experience doubt.
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Matt Torney, assisted by Marielle Burt . Featuring Christian Conn, Sarah Narshall, Amelia Pedlow and Tiffany M. Thompson . Set design: Daniel Conway, assisted by Jack Golden . Costume design: Wade Lsaboissonniere, assisted by Channing Tucker . Lighting designer: Dawn Chiang, assisted by Jacob Hughes . Sound designer: Victoria Deiorio . Dramaturg: Lauren Halvorsen, assisted by Fiona Selmi . Dialect coach: Zach Campion , Director of Production: Josh Escajeda . Production assistant: Mary Alex Staude . Takeover production assistant: Tyler Metteer . Technical director: Jeffrey Martin . Board operator: Ben Harvey . Production stage manager: Lauren Pekel, assisted by Charles Cicchino . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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