BWW Review: Lowell's Exquisite Performance Reverberates Long After Curtain For Studio Tenn's DOUBT

BWW Review: Lowell's Exquisite Performance Reverberates Long After Curtain For Studio Tenn's DOUBT

Marguerite Lowell's exquisitely crafted performance as Sister Aloysius will continue to reverberate long after the curtain has come down on Studio Tenn's remarkably prescient and timely production of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, which runs at Jamison Theatre in the Factory at Franklin through Sunday.

Deserving of every accolade that could be heaped upon it, director Nat McIntyre's Doubt is solidly performed by a quartet of local actors performing at the top of their games and set against the backdrop of a stunning theatrical design by company artistic director Matt Logan. Studio Tenn's Doubt is just the latest in a series of local productions that dates ten years back to Tennessee Repertory Theatre's 2008 production. And while every production we've encountered locally has been impressive - starring some of the region's best-known actors, including Rona Carter and Nan Gurley, both incandescent as Sister Aloysius in different stagings - this 2018 vintage Doubt may indeed be the most satisfying we've encountered.

BWW Review: Lowell's Exquisite Performance Reverberates Long After Curtain For Studio Tenn's DOUBT
Marguerite Lowell and Emily Landham

McIntyre's spellbinding staging of Doubt immediately takes control of its audience, never for a moment relinquishing its hold until the stage goes dark at the play's understated, but remarkably effective, final scene. Even then, you will be hard pressed to stop thinking about the show you have just witnessed: a compelling look at two strong-willed individuals battling for their own sense of purpose, their own tremendous sense of commitment to what each deems appropriate.

With a provocative script by John Patrick Shanley, Doubt features the playwright's beautiful and articulate dialogue and his uncanny ability to make even the most disturbing subjects seem somehow more palatable and the source of much discussion well after the performance has ended. Even more relevant today than when it debuted in 2004 - in a world rife with the accusations of inappropriate behavior by Catholic priests and the media coverage of such incidents that seems to almost inundate us regularly - Shanley's play refuses to pander to the prurient or the distasteful (in fact, words like "molestation" and "sexual assault" are never uttered in the script), but rather it relates the story of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn (played with amazing clarity and focus by Brent Maddox) in such a way that the complexities of the issue becomes even more apparent and, perhaps, even more confounding and polarizing.

BWW Review: Lowell's Exquisite Performance Reverberates Long After Curtain For Studio Tenn's DOUBT
Brent Maddox

Doubt is polarizing because of the sharply drawn differences among Shanley's well-defined characters. The stern and steadfast Sister Aloysius, for example, may be off-putting with her cold demeanor and clipped speech patterns, yet there remains something appealing about her that is attributable to how the character is written and to the way Lowell becomes her over the course of the play's 90-plus minutes, hectoring young Sister James (Emily Landham delivers yet another intriguing performance as the somewhat naïve eighth-grade teacher) and ruling the school with discipline and commitment. Maddox's Father Flynn is far more affable and engaging, a straight-talking charmer who delivers his homilies with a disingenuous wit and refreshingly contemporary approach that is presented in relief against the old-school, more traditional ways of Sister Aloysius.

As a result, Father Flynn's supposed "interference" with 12-year-old Donald Muller, the first and only African-American child to attend St. Nicholas School, seems secondary to the encroaching battles about the intertwined theology and education - and the role of the Church in the lives of its congregants - between the priest and the nun who is principal of the school. And by refusing to say the words, to describe the events that are alleged to have taken place between Father Flynn and Donald Muller, the impact of the discussion seems even more strongly felt when interpretation is left to one's own imagination as Sister Aloysius finds herself unable to say the offensive phrases.

BWW Review: Lowell's Exquisite Performance Reverberates Long After Curtain For Studio Tenn's DOUBT
Marguerite Lowell and Brent Maddox

Shanley's craftsmanship is artfully displayed in a scene that occurs between Lowell's Sister Aloysius and Donald Muller's mother, played with startling authenticity by Aleta Myles, when the latter is summoned to the school for a meeting about the nun's fears about the true nature of the supposed relationship between the priest and the altar boy. As Sister Aloysius reveals her concerns to the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller's consternation at the charges becomes obvious and she responds in a way that seems incongruous to our expectations. Instead, Mrs. Muller recognizes her son's true nature and argues that Father Flynn's attention to Donald helps to mitigate matters at home with a father who beats him and derides him for his very differentness - and who might even kill him - if he knew all the facts and realized his son's true nature as his mother does. Mrs. Muller begs Sister Aloysius to remain quiet, arguing that her son needs the protection and the kindness shown him by the older man in order to survive, maybe even to thrive, in the world as it was in 1964.

BWW Review: Lowell's Exquisite Performance Reverberates Long After Curtain For Studio Tenn's DOUBT
Marguerite Lowell

Lowell's performance as Sister Aloysius is extraordinary: the elegant and refined actress so easily transforms in the nun that she is virtually unrecognizable and her astonishingly controlled characterization presents something of a master class for younger actors in the show's audience. Her stage presence is palpable, yet she never resorts to stagey artifice, nor does she ever rely on the easy choice. Instead, she breathes new life into Aloysius that sets her performance apart from all the others. Lowell's portrayal in underscored with intelligence and spirit, which makes her character far more engaging than you might expect.

Likewise, Maddox, who has added a list of stellar performances to his resume thanks to his previous roles with Studio Tenn over the years (he's played everyone from George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life to Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man with equal grace and ferocity), delivers a Father Flynn who is so appealing that every person in the audience will fall under his spell. The priest's emotional connection to the unseen Donald seems heartfelt and genuine, even as Flynn's baser instincts become apparent late in Act Two as he scrambles to save his hide during a confrontation with Lowell's powerful Aloysius. The subtlety of Maddox's performance is strongly felt in that powerfully written scene in which his life, or what we view as his life, unravels before us.

BWW Review: Lowell's Exquisite Performance Reverberates Long After Curtain For Studio Tenn's DOUBT
Emily Landham and Brent Maddox

Landham's quiet grace makes Sister James, who seems innocent and untested when compared to the more experienced and confident Sister Aloysius, thoroughly believable and her skillful rendering of her character allows her reactions to seem far more genuine. In fact, Sister James represents the very chasm that develops between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, as she struggles to come to terms with what he discovers and how she interprets it for herself even while being told by her superior what she is to believe.

BWW Review: Lowell's Exquisite Performance Reverberates Long After Curtain For Studio Tenn's DOUBT
Aleta Myles

Myles' brief time onstage as Mrs. Muller in her one movingly dramatic scene, is intensely powerful and expressive - her carriage and demeanor reflect her character's desire to succeed in providing her son with opportunities thought unlikely in 1964. Her performance is heartrending in its understated delivery.

Logan's scenic design of Sister Aloysius' school office and the surrounding environs of St. Nicholas School helps to provide a visual and evocative touchstone for the play's time and place. Wonderfully detailed, the set gives a tangible sense of history to the proceedings, while Logan's costumes provide the actors with a connection to their characters' personalities. Lighting design, by Stephen Moss and Robert Helvey, illuminates each scene perfectly, giving the production an overall effect that somehow seems nostalgic yet contemporary, ensuring the play's impact is more acutely felt. Eliza Garrity's sound design is equally impressive, ensuring that every utterance by the show's quartet of actors is clearly heard, and providing ambient sounds that create a whole world on a darkened stage.

Doubt - A Parable. By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Nat McIntyre. Presented by Studio Tenn, at Jamison Theatre at The Factory in Franklin. Through February 25. For details, go to www.StudioTenn.com. Running time: 1 hours, 50 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission).

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