Wednesday, March 5, 2008
What do you do when you're not sure? This question looms over New Stage Theater's production of John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Doubt," but don't expect any easy answers.
Set in 1964 New York, the play unfolds amid seismic changes to both American society as well as Catholicism. President John F. Kennedy is dead, and social convulsions are afoot, transforming the parish demographics of St. Nicholas' insular Irish and Italian neighborhood. Within the Catholic Church, the recent reforms of the Vatican II council promise a friendlier, more accessible church capable of adapting to the changing times.
Spare and focused, the play consists of only four characters navigating their suspicions and convictions through 90 tense, unflinching, intermission-less minutes.
The curtains open onto St. Nicholas, an imposing, antiquated Catholic church and school in the Bronx. The stately walls of graying bricks bear a single window that opens out onto a view of more bricks. But a series of cracks along the foundation indicate that the underlying structure may not be so sound.
Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas, (played by Josephine Hall) represents old Catholicism, and embodies every stereotype of the joyless Catholic authoritarian. In an early scene, Aloysius admonishes the enthusiastic young Sister James (played by Jackson actress Kristen Patton) to "put some starch in her character," and to snuff out any signs of levity among her students.
More sympathetic is the affable Father Flynn (played by Jamie Wax), St. Nicholas' physical education and religion instructor who symbolizes a chummy, more personable church. But Flynn's excessive geniality toward altar boy David Muller—who is also the school's first black student—arouses Aloysius' suspicion. The remainder of the play follows Aloysius' pursuit of Flynn. In the process, she confronts her own doubts about the veracity of her accusations and the moral certitude of her cause.
Shanley wrote "Doubt" in 2004 when the emergence of abuse scandals roiled the Catholic Church, and it would be easy to dispel the play as dated. The same revelations that once shouted from the newspaper headlines have already settled into the sediment of our religious discourse.
To strengthen the play's claim to sustained relevance, Shanley bills it as "a parable" that merely uses the backdrop of the abuse scandals as a vehicle to address universal themes. But some resonance has been lost in the years since, as we have collectively moved from doubting certain issues to a position of resolute reproach.
If the play has lost some degree of urgency over the years, this merely frees the audience to focus on the show's aesthetic pleasures, which lend a degree of abstraction that would have been absent in earlier productions of the play. Our distance from yesteryear's news reports frees us to focus on the sharp dialogue, the meticulous set and the actors' tense confrontations with themselves and each other.
As Flynn, Jamie Wax showcases his background in stand-up comedy with a dead on Irish-Bronx accent and an even more authentic portrayal of an old-country Irishman during one of his sermons. His character is a perfect balance of affability and creepiness. Josephine Hall creates in Aloysius a character as exacting and hard on herself as she is on her charges. She's sympathetic without losing her authoritarian demeanor, and at her best when making muted references to her former married life before donning the habit.
Demetria Thomas plays Muller's mother, who only appears in the play for one brief scene. Her impassioned appeal to avoid easy answers in an uneasy world challenges Sister Aloysius and the audience to refrain from making hasty judgments. Muller lends a voice of moral complexity that starkly contrasts with the guileless and innocent Sister James.
Director Francine Reynolds maintains the script's emotional intensity and fast pace; the play provides an unrelenting assault of biting dialogue, seething tempers and courtroom-style cross-examinations. Scenic Designer David Carter's austere, imposing set raises the bar in creating a backdrop that reflects the tone of the play and reminds the audience that although nothing is certain, the stakes are as high as heaven itself.