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BWW Review: Theatre Memphis' Next Stage Raises DOUBT

The set for Theatre Memphis' Next Stage production of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning DOUBT impresses with its austerity: The walls and doors are of rich,dark wood; the red leather chair behind the principal's desk and the furniture in the room are carefully arranged; everything seems compartmentalized. Moreover, St. Nicholas School is in the apparently firm hands of "Sister Aloysius" (yes, it rhymes with "suspicious"), and wary she is. The time is the early 1960's, shortly after the unsettling assassination of President John F. Kennedy. St. Nicholas has accepted its first black student, "Donald Muller," a lonely and isolated thirteen-year old altar boy of "the new priest on the block," "Father Flynn," who, with his tweaking of tradition and progressive inclination have made him a threat to Aloysius' tightly run ship. As Bob Dylan famously sang, "The times they are a-changin'" -- but, as far as the straight-backed, bespectacled principal is concerned, "not at THIS school." For Aloysius, art and music classes are a perfect waste of time; at first glance, she is a stereotypical "old school" nun. However, Pulitzer Prizes are not awarded to writers who resort to stereotype, and Mr. Shanley's script is tight, subtle, and full of surprises.

When timid young nun "Sister James" suggests that Father Flynn kept Donald a little too long in conference, and that Donald returned to class with alcohol on his breath, the ugly scent of molestation is in the air, and Sister Aloysius, with the uneasy and unsure assistance of Sister James, is determined to ferret it out. Though this sets the stage for a series of escalating "meetings" and insinuations in the principal's office, there are so many other issues that begin to emerge -- the subjugation of females within the church, the "connection" among the male prelates who come to each other's aid, and so forth. Nor are Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn exactly what they seem. Though Aloysius insists that Sister James recognize the chain of command within the church and resign herself to it, in her quest to unseat Father Flynn, she isn't averse to chiseling away at it herself. She scorns secular music, but she becomes addicted to the transistor radio which she has confiscated. Father Flynn also may not be the innocent victim of character assassination, either. Pay close attention to his scene with the distraught Sister James; he uses her position as a kind of weapon when he suggests that she may lose her job.

As I watched the play, I was, oddly enough, reminded of similar themes and characters in Arthur Miller's anti-McCarthy play, THE CRUCIBLE. A witch hunt is going on here; we know that the victims of the Miller play were truly innocent. We're not so certain here -- even at the end of the play. Moreover, there is a vacillating character in the Miller play,"Mary Warren," who, like Sister James here, is like a ball of yarn being pawed back and forth by opposing cats. (In a sense, the uncertainty of Sister James is that of the audience. If Sister Aloysiyus' suspicions are correct, we find ourselves backing a cold distant cousin of Ken Kesey's "Nurse Ratched," and, despite our distance from the character, rooting for her to win. Moreover, the man she seeks to bring down is popular, engaging, and sweet-natured, someone whom we ordinarily would want to win.)

One of the most surprising and challenging scenes, however, is that between the principal and the hard-working, "I live in the real world" "Mrs. Muller." Mrs. Muller politely listens to Sister Aloysius' suspicions, but the exposition she provides -- and the revelations she shares about her son and his home life -- will surprise an audience unfamiliar with the Shanley work.

Director Tony Isbell has given this over to a quartet of fine players, and he has created a taut, fast-moving piece. The scenes become increasingly harrowing -- it's especially noteworthy that Aloysius, who earlier had derided James for her "passion" in communication, has the most passionate outbursts in climactic scenes. Mr. Isbell has worked often with Christina Wellford Scott, one of Memphis' premier actresses; and her uncompromising, starchy "Aloysius" is memorable, indeed. One of the graces of Shanley's play is the recurring assurance of humor, and some of Ms. Scott's dry delivery has the aplomb of Bea Arthur's MAUDE. Ryan Kathman's "Father Flynn" is sympathetic, yet ambiguous; watch him transition from "don't forget that I'm a Priest"-mode, jotting down disproving observations of Sister Aloysius as he prepares a sermon about the dangers of "gossip," to a figure disintegrating at the prospect of character assassination. Michelle Miklosey's "Sister James" is tremulous and troubled; like Mark Twain's "Pap" in HUCKLEBERRY FINN, she is torn between a good angel and a bad angel (though which is which, we're not quite sure.). Trying to emulate and please Aloysius, she struggles to stifle her instinctive, natural gifts as a teacher. (She is closer in spirit, in fact, to Flynn.). Effective, too, is the weary and worried Antoinette K. Harris as a mother who knows when to turn "a blind eye."

When listening to the lines, pay particular attention to Father Flynn's opening sermon. Though Aloysius may scorn and scoff at it, by the play's end, she may have just got the message. Through November 21.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)