BWW Reviews: DOUBT at David Lipscomb University's Shamblin Theatre
Provocative and compelling, John Patrick Shanley's script for Doubt remains stagebound - albeit a Pulitzer Prize-winning, stagebound masterpiece - until a confident director and cast take on the challenge of mounting a production, in which to breathe life into the characters created so vividly by the playwright on the written page. For the next two weekends, Nashville audiences are given the opportunity to see Doubt in a remarkably acted and superbly staged production at David Lipscomb University's Shamblin Theatre.
Presented as part of Lipscomb's Christian Scholars Conference - an annual symposium during which scholars from across the country gather to discuss a particular topic (this year's focus is the arts) as it pertains to Christian academia - the production's opening night featured an appearance by Shanley himself, which came after his plenary address to the conference, for which he earned justifiably rave reviews from those in attendance.
Staging Doubt for the conference was a courageous choice for the Lipscomb theatre department, which is broadening its scope (word is that a master's program in theatre is in the offing at the university) and making its presence in Nashville's arts community felt far more strongly (this fall Blackbird Theatre Company, a non-profit professional theatre, debuts on-campus as the official artists-in-residence for Lipscomb Theatre with the debut of Greg Greene and Wes Driver's Twilight of the Gods).
Shanley's Doubt, deserving of all its accolades and an excellent example of theatre as literature with its beautifully crafted dialogue and Shanley's uncanny ability to make even the most disturbing subject palatable and cause for much discussion, is particularly relevant in this day and age, what with the news filled with stories of religious figures straying over the line, as it were, to use their positions of authority to prey upon the weak and the helpless.
But Doubt doesn't pander to the tabloid-like aspects of its story; clearly, it is very much a story of a priest who may - and, more importantly, may not - have molested a young altar boy, who happens to be the first black child to attend St. Nicholas' School in 1964 New York. Instead of focusing on the prurient and the salacious, Doubt considers the clash of ideas and ideals as an old-school educator (Sister Aloysius) does battle with a forward-thinking teacher of a more contemporary bent (Father Flynn). As a result, Father Flynn's supposed molestation of young Donald Muller seems, at first, secondary to the pair's battle teaching methods and disciplinary actions. In fact, the term "molestation" is never uttered in the script and in many ways, the interpretation of what might have happened between Flynn and his young charge is left to the imagination, as Sister Aloysius finds herself unable to say the damning words.
Shanley's superb craftsmanship is perhaps felt most strongly in one particular scene, during which Donald's mother (played by the luminescent Alicia Haymer) comes to St. Nicholas' for a meeting with Sister Aloysius, during which the nun levels her accusations against the priest. Mrs. Muller's consternation at the charges, coupled with her clear-eyed view of her son's nature and what the world holds in store for him, is movingly heartrending and sure to provoke thought. As she goes toe-to-toe with Sister Aloysius, Mrs. Muller begs the nun to remain quiet, in order to ensure a better life for her son, who will most certainly suffer more than the priest if the charges are leveled.
With Shanley watching from the audience on opening night, director Mike Fernandez and his cast found themselves under the most terrific pressure one could imagine and they took up the challenge with grace, delivering a stunning production that does the theatre program at Lipscomb very proud.
Led by Nashville theatre stalwart Nan Gurley as Sister Aloysius and Baylor University professor Steven Pounders as Father Flynn, Fernandez's cast is uniformly consistent and committed to their performances. Fernandez's direction is crisply focused on the play's action and his deft hand is seen throughout The Players' onstage interactions that fairly crackle with intensity.
Gurley intelligently underplays Sister Aloysius, skirting stereotype while creating her own personal take on the character, created on Broadway by Tennessee native Cherry Jones in her Tony Award-winning turn. The role seems tailor-made for the versatile Gurley, whose underlying grace and humanity saves Sister Aloysius from becoming a terrorizing harridan. While Gurley, at first, seems somewhat tentative and reserved, she quickly regains her surefooted way of bringing the character to life.