Leaving Things in Doubt

DoubtI just got back from the the Pasadena Playhouse, where I saw the play Doubt by John Patrick Shanley (shanleysmoney -at aol.com, yes, it was in the program). The play starred Linda Hunt as Sister Aloysious, Jonathan Cake as Father Flynn, Mandy Freund as Sister James, and Patrice Pitman Quinn as Mrs. Muller.

This play was excellent, and did what a classic good play should do: it made you think! The play takes place in 1964, just as the Vatican II reforms are starting to creep in. It takes place in a Catholic School, presumably in MA. The school is run by an old-school Mother Superior (Sister Aloysious), who is instructing her young new teacher (Sister James) that she has to be strict with the students, watch and protect them, not be compassionate or believe what is on the surface. She asks her to be especially suspicious when the new young priest is alone with the boys. Well, a report comes in, and then Sister Aloysious goes on a witch hunt against the father. The questions that are raised relate to the power of gossip to destroy a reputation, and how doggedly we should pursue our convictions even in the light of protestations they are wrong. In the end, Sister Aloysious ends up driving the father out of the school, but she admits she lied about part of the evidence…. but he wouldn’t had left had the lie been false. Would he? You walk out of the theatre questioning who was right: Aloysious or Flynn. This is good theatre.

I also found it timely to be seeing this play on the day of the passing of Pope John Paul II. The Pope had his faith, his certainty, on many issues that others disagreed with him on. The Pope presided over the church in a time of scandel in the priesthood. Did he have his doubts? Did these doubts shape his actions? All of these are good questions.

Talking Broadway, when reviewing the New York production of the play (which is running concurrently with the Playhouse production) noted: A play this thoughtful, this well-crafted, this passionate is hard to ignore and even harder to resist. Yes, it addresses issues of great meaning to many: faith, truthfulness, determination to do what’s right at any cost. But those are incidental concerns. The play’s specific story – about a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, where a priest might be carrying on an inappropriate relationship with the school’s lone black student – is also beside the point. The real drama comes from how you, like the characters, deal with a situation that can’t be fully understood because it cannot be interpreted in only one way. When you’re faced with a situation like this, for which there is no single clear answer, with whom do you identify? The priest, Father Flynn, who loves teaching and takes his faith seriously, but makes perhaps too many mistakes? The school’s principal, Sister Aloysius, who uses all of her education, experience, and personal beliefs to come to a conclusion, and then sticks to her guns in order to protect the children at any cost? School teacher Sister James, who can too easily see both sides of the question? Or, the black student’s mother, Mrs. Muller, who knows elements of the truth, but might let the consequences slide in pursuit of a possible greater good?

In the review of the Los Angeles production, Talking Broadway commended the play, but didn’t like the casting as much. I disagree. I thought the casting was great. You can see a picture of Linda Hunt in the Hollywood Reporter link below. Suffice it to say here is this little over 4’9″ Mother Superior, old, standing up to this 7′ handsome young priest. Yet she has such power and presence over him. Yet there is one seen where the priest is in front of her, and she is in the back of the stage, and suddenly you feel his power.

The Hollywood Reporter notes that: Ultimately, Shanley, in dialogue that blends the poetic and the realistic (with bits of humor to lighten the load) asks whether Sister Aloysius is being overly protective or not protective enough, and whether Father Flynn’s casual approach to his students has an evil intent. All is cast in the gray area of doubt — and this is Shanley’s overall point in his timely and engrossing play.

Curtain Up notes: “John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt flowers from a conventional seed into an intricate vine whose tendrils go beyond did-he or didn’t-he to nudge ramifications of faith, justification, and even the future, where we dwell in the dubious miasma of the invasion of Iraq. But there’s nothing flowery about the exquisite clarity of this play. Unlike the heightened poetic language in the playwright’s previous works, Doubt sets its parameters out in the black and white worn by the priest and nun whose duel this is.”

ReviewPlays says: “The Doubt here is not only whether Father Flynn is guilty of priestophilia—Shanley craftily lets that decision rest squarely on the shoulders of each individual audience member—but whether Sister A’s ruthless campaign is justified in the first place. Under Claudia Weill’s taut direction on Gary L. Weissmann’s gloriously atmospheric set, this is thrilling, highly provocative theatre that does just what it’s meant to do: asks more questions than it answers. Hunt is magnificently rigid as Sister Aloysius, using her familiarly croaky voice to wonderful advantage here, although her performance is marred by fumbled words and odd little pauses, possibly waiting to hear her lines fed to her through an earpiece? Cake could not be better as the accused priest and Freund is quietly arresting as the novice nun, perfect in her subtlety as we watch her character’s sweetly guileless passion for teaching being squashed right in front of us, but it is Patrice Pitman Quinn, as the mother of the young kid Sister A suspects is performing more rituals than simply lighting altar candles, who in one brief scene offers the most memorable performance.”

This was a fascinating evening of theatre. If you get a chance to go see this play, do so. Our next play at the playhouse will be Private Lives by Noel Coward at the end of May.