That’s an interesting question. We often think reality is what we see with our eyes, what eyewitnesses tell us. But is that reality? Is that the truth? Perhaps, as Harry Nillsson wrote in The Point, we “see what you want to see, and hear what you want to hear.” This was on my mind as I drove to last night’s show, especially as I was listening to a recent Quirks and Quarks on the subject of implanting false criminal memories. What was the show? Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (FB), which is running at Rep East Playhouse (FB) in Newhall through April 4, 2015.
Now, I’ve seen Doubt before. In fact, I saw it almost exactly 10 years ago at the Pasadena Playhouse, in the West Coast premiere production starring Linda Hunt as Sister Aloysious and Jonathan Cake as Father Flynn. I remember coming out of that production thinking that this was what theatre should be — drama that makes you think and question, and get insights you might not have seen before. I still think that. That production also seared an image of Doubt in my head: the tall and thin priest (Cake is 6’3″) against the small and feisty nun (Hunt is 4’9″). I’ll note I also saw that production of Doubt on the day John Paul II died, and when all the accusations against priests were in the news. All these combined to lead me to the conclusion that ultimate guilt of the main characters was evenly divided — I couldn’t tell you if Father Flynn had done what was claimed.
Perhaps at this point I should tell you the story of Doubt. The following is an edited synopsis from what was on Wikipedia: The play is set in the fictional St. Nicholas Church School, in the Bronx, during the fall of 1964. It opens with a sermon by Father Flynn, a beloved and progressive parish priest, addressing the importance of uncertainty. The school’s principal, Sister Aloysius, a rigidly conservative nun insists upon constant vigilance. During a meeting with a younger nun, Sister James, it becomes clear that Aloysius harbors a deep mistrust toward her students, her fellow teachers, and society in general. Naïve and impressionable, James is easily upset by Aloysius’s severe manner and harsh criticism. Aloysius requests that James report to her any odd or suspicious interactions between Father Flynn and the students. Aloysius and Father Flynn are put into direct conflict when she learns from Sister James that the priest met one-on-one with Donald Muller, St. Nicholas’ first African-American student. After a one-on-one meeting with Muller in the rectory, Muller returned with an odd look on his face, an alcohol on his breath. Mysterious circumstances lead her to believe that sexual misconduct occurred. In a private meeting purportedly regarding the Christmas pageant, Aloysius, in the presence of Sister James, openly confronts Flynn with her suspicions. He angrily denies wrongdoing, insisting that he was disciplining Donald for drinking altar wine, claiming to have been protecting the boy from harsher punishment. James is relieved by his explanation. Flynn’s next sermon is on the evils of gossip. Aloysius, dissatisfied with Flynn’s story, meets with Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller. Despite Aloysius’s attempts to shock her, Mrs. Muller says she supports her son’s relationship with Flynn. She ignores Aloysius’s accusations, noting she’ll look the other way on anything because they only need to make it to graduation in June. Before departing, she hints that Donald may be “that way”, and that Mr. Muller may be beating him consequently. Father Flynn eventually threatens to remove Aloysius from her position if she does not back down. Aloysius informs him that she previously phoned the last parish he was assigned to, discovering a history of past infringements. After declaring his innocence, the priest begins to plead with her, at which point she blackmails him and demands that he resign immediately, or else she will publicly disgrace him with his history. She then leaves the office, disgusted. Flynn calls the bishop to apply for a transfer, where, later, he receives a promotion and is instated as pastor of a nearby parochial school. Learning this, Aloysius reveals to Sister James that the decisive phone call was a fabrication. As a result of this, she is left with great doubt in herself and her faith. With no actual proof that Father Flynn is or is not innocent, the audience is left with its own doubt.
This time I came into the show in a very different state of mind. I’ve been deeply involved in the battle between AEA and Los Angeles actors. I had just been listening to the show on implanted false memories. The presentation dynamic was also different. The REP production starred Georgan George (FB) as Sister Aloysius and Jeff Johnson/FB as Father Flynn. In contrast to Hunt’s tiny powerhouse, George was tall and thin — but equally determined. Johnson wasn’t like Cake either; whereas Cake was tall and Irish, Johnson was… the word that comes to mind is “avuncular.” Rounder and friendlier and seemingly more accessible. This left me with the conclusion — much more so than 10 years ago — that Aloysius was on a witch hunt. She was out to get the man based on a first time impression and a dislike of the changes he was bringing to her church. Those changes took many forms — the Vatican II changes, the change in relationship between Fathers and Nuns, and the changes in society. She didn’t like them, and she didn’t like this man (e.g., “I say it is spinach, and I don’t like it”). Her determination was that of a Republican congressman against President Obama — that of a conspiracy theorist who has aligned the facts to fit their particular version of the story, and any other explanation is just a ruse created by the other side.
The fact that I came away — again — with this impression is a testament to the performance of George (FB) as Aloysius, Johnson/FB as Flynn, and Alli Kelly (FB) as Sister James. George believably gave off that aura of righteous conviction, of someone who truly believed that she was right and how she perceived what she saw to be the truth (which made her doubt at the end even more powerful). Johnson, as I noted before, gave off that avuncular vibe, which made his anger and capitulation at the end even more powerful. Kelly, who provided the innocence factor, truly gave off the joy she felt when teaching her students, and equally radiated pain when forced to do Aloysius’ dirty work and work against the students and Father Flynn. She just wanted to teach. Rounding out the cast was Cherrelle éLan (FB) as Mrs. Muller. Although she only appeared in one scene, éLan (FB) left the impression of the modern (that is, 1960s) African-American woman in the Jackie Kennedy mode — she didn’t want to rock the boat; she wanted to integrate into her community and not make waves. Great performances, all. I’ll note you can see these actors in action in the trailer that REP produced, which is up on YouTube.
Doubt was directed by Mark Kaplan (FB). I was going to comment on the dissonance created by having a Jewish director create the world of a heavily Catholic school, but I didn’t see it. The way the actors portrayed the scenes felt realistic to me. But then again, what do I know — Mark and I come from the same backgrounds! I do wonder how much the director can adjust the portrayals in this show to lead the audience one way or the other — in a sense, implanting their own layer of false memory on top of the situation. It is an interesting question, but I don’t know how I would just. All I know is I enjoyed the show. Kaplan was assisted in his directoral duties by Kimbyrly M. Valis (FB).
On the technical side, there was the usual REP excellence. Scenic Design was by the REP’s artistic and executive directors, Mikee Schwinn/FB and Ovington Michael Owston (FB) and presented a realistic principal’s office and courtyard. Sound design was by REP resident designer Steven “Nanook” Burkholder/FB; I particularly noted the directionality of the bird sounds. Nice. Lighting was by REP resident designer Tim Christianson/FB and conveyed the mood well. Costume Design was by Janet McAnany (FB); my only question was whether the clerical vestments were correct — but not being Catholic, I have no way to judge. They were close enough for Government work, and I do Government work. J. T. Centonze (FB) was the stage manager.
“Doubt” continues at Rep East Playhouse (FB) in Newhall through April 4, 2015. The production I saw was only half-full — and this show deserves better. Everyone should come out and see this excellent story and this excellent cast. REP is offering half-price tickets through their Facebook page; there’s a half-price offer on their main page, and tickets are up on Goldstar. There’s no excuse to not go see this show — it is less expensive than a movie, and you get to see some really good people (and the people on stage aren’t half-bad either ). Call (661) 288-0000 or visit the REP website for tickets. P.S.: Note also that the next REP show has changed back to what was originally planned, as REP finally got the rights to “Dinner with Friends“, which will run May 8 through June 6. REP will also be holding a fundraiser, “Law & Order: REP”, on June 20.
If you’ve been reading my write-ups of late, you’ll know I’ve been tying each one to the battle between AEA and Los Angeles actors. Going in, I was going to write something about how REP is an example of what 99 seat theatre can be. But during the show — specifically, during the scene between Sister James and Father Flynn in the courtyard — I was struck with a realization. The story of Doubt is the story of this battle. Sister Aloysius is Actors Equity. They’ve heard a story — they’ve seen a thing or two — they’ve heard a rumor — and they have become deeply suspicious of the producers and actors in Los Angeles. They believe their view of the world is the only view of the world, and they will stop at nothing to get their way. They will slant the facts, they will implant misleading or false stories, they will create innuendo and gossip — all for the sole purpose of keeping the world they want it to be. The actor/producers and producers in Los Angeles are Father Flynn. Friendly and willing to work with everyone, out for the joy of making the world a better place. They are simply trying to do this, but keep having to rebut the false claims and mistrust of Sister A./AEA. The actors are Sister James. They are in this for the joy of what they do, and they simply want to be able to do it. To be able to teach (act) and spread the joy that teaching (acting) brings to them to the world. The audience is Donald Muller — unseen on the stage, but impacted in so many ways by the witch-hunt of Sister A. (AEA). Now that I’ve presented this analogy, I urge you to go see Doubt at REP East, and I think you’ll agree. AEA is on an unfounded witch hunt.
I’ll wait while you see the show. […] Did you enjoy it?
So what can we do — the Donald Mullers of the world — against Sister Alyosius (AEA). We’re not being molested by the priest; there is a great working relationship between us, Sister James (the local actors), and the priest (producers). But the Sister (AEA) is on a witch hunt to bring us down. I’ll tell you what we can do: We can have a backbone, and stand up to the bullies! If you are free Monday afternoon, 3/23, go out and march with the actors on AEA headquarters. Encourage the AEA actors you know to vote “no” on this proposal. Learn about the situation through the information on Bitter Lemons, through the I Love 99 website, and the I Love 99 Facebook group. Don’t let AEA mislead you and distract you, and make you see something that isn’t there. We want change, but not this change (and a “yes” vote will bring the change we don’t want — it will get Father Flynn transferred).
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: March concludes with “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11 (I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to a show on the weekend of Pesach, but unless something really calls to me, it is unlikely). The following weekend will see us back at a music store listening to a performance: this time, it is Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB). After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely, possibly Don Rickles at the Orleans, and Penn & Teller are on Goldstar. We may also work in “After the Revolution” at the Chance Theatre (FB). May begins with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School). The weekend of May 16 brings “Dinner with Friends” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB). The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB), “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB), and “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB). June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival (which should include a production of “Marry Me a Little” by Good People Theatre (FB)), a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawks, our annual drum corps show, and hopefully “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.