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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.

Pounders is satisfyingly comforting and genuine as Father Flynn, showing the priest's compassion with conviction as we watch his character's emotional arc throughout the play's 90 minutes. Flynn's concern for his parishioners and his views of the Catholic Church and its role in a modern world are brought vividly to the fore by Pounders' wonderfully nuanced portrayal, while he perfectly captures the priest's ambitions and baser instincts in the play's later scenes - scenes that are, at once, powerfully written and subtly acted.

Haymer is ideally cast as Mrs. Muller and, quite frankly, steals the show with her stunning performance. Understated, yet somehow tremendously dramatic, Haymer's reading of the role is quite possibly her best work to date, yet another auspicious entry onto her already burgeoning - and quite impressive - theatrical resume.

Completing the cast as young and inexperienced Sister James, Beki Baker presents a finely crafted characterization, representing the very differences that form the chasm between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Initially, Baker is soft-spoken, almost unable to control her nervous energy, gaining in confidence as Sister James begins to form her own opinions about the brewing scandal and her own role in fanning the flames that threaten to engulf the school, the convent and the rectory.

Fernandez's even-handed direction is confident and imaginative and the actions moves along at a nice pace - although one quibble persists: What's with the tea table, set with dishes, being moved around the set by a crew member so often? It's distracting and disrupts the flow of the play.

Paul Gatrell's set is beautifully conceived and realized, clearly one of the production's chief design attributes. But be forewarned: Sight lines at the Shamblin Theatre are somewhat bothersome, depending on where you sit. TrisH Clark's commendable costume designs are perfect evocations of the time and place, and David Hardy's lighting design very artfully capture the play's shifting moods while illuminating the action onstage and helping to focus the audience's attention when needed.

- Doubt, A Parable. By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Mike Fernandez. Presented by the David Lipscomb University Theater Department. At Shamblin Theatre, Nashville. Through June 13. For tickets, call the Lipscomb Theater Box Office at (615) 966-7111.

Steven Pounders, Beki Baker and Nan Gurley in Doubt at David Lipscomb University


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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis