BWW Reviews: DOUBT at the Carrollwood Players

By: Nov. 13, 2014

Many community theatres have been shying away from strong dramas of late. They can't get enough of the overdone Michael Parker farces, whose titles--The Sensuous Senator, The Amorous Ambassador, The Passionate President (okay, I made up the last title)--tell us everything we need to know (that the show will strain for laughs and be as funny as an uncle with a lampshade on his head). If we want to see retreads of "Three's Company" plotlines, then there are always "Three's Company" reruns for us to watch on TV. It's time for theatres to take the plunge again into heavy dramas, to not be timid and scared and, the most lethal word in theatre, safe. Of course there's nothing wrong with doing the farces; just even them out with a classic drama or two.

The Carrollwood Players understand this. They obviously do not shy away from drama. And their latest offering, John Patrick Shanley's absorbing, wonderfully written, Pulitzer Prize-winning DOUBT, is brilliantly staged and impeccably acted. This is what separates the heavyweight community theatres like Carrollwood Players with the lesser, more timid companies. They care to do things right; they don't take the easy way out. DOUBT is a show where everything comes together--acting, set design, sound, direction and that wonderful script. This is as good as community theatre gets.

DOUBT does what its title makes us doubt. The story is set in 1964 (although the program incorrectly identifies the year as "1962"), the last innocent year. Progress is coming, but Sister Aloysius Beauvier wants none of it. As Principal of St. Nicholas Catholic Church and School, she wants everything in its right place, perfect, unchanged. She cannot stand progress, exemplified by the caring, tender, gregarious Father Brendan Flynn. But Sister Aloysius is a rock of unwavering certainty, and she thinks that this particular priest is the worst thing to happen to her school. She doesn't like him or the way he does things--such as adding "Frosty the Snowman" to the Christmas pageant. And she suspects, with much certitude, that this nice priest may have "had his way" with a 12-year-old student. What's the real story, who is right or wrong, and who survives by certainty and falls by doubt?

Director Jim Russell's homerun-hitting cast hits all the right notes in this marvelous production. The acting is superlative. Jeff Roush, as Father Flynn, is natural, companionable, everything we want in a priest--Jack Lemmon in Mass Appeal meets Pat O'Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces. His sermons are the high point of the show, beautifully written by playwright Shanley and beautifully delivered by Roush. His Act 2 opening monologue about gossip is simply masterful. There is a gentleness and extreme likability with Father Flynn, and Roush hits every emotional note, always charming even when fighting for his life. He's so good that after one of his sermons, the elderly lady in front of me said quite loudly, "HE SHOULD BE A MINISTER!"

Sister Aloysius is so exact that she makes sure each chair is in just the right place. Played by the stellar Amy C. Ragg with a heavy accent, she is an Umbridge monster in a habit. With her, even a mere drink of water is apocalyptic. It's a bigger than life performance, horrifying yet entertaining, and Ragg owns the role and commands the stage with abandon.

As Sister Aloysius' soundboard, the meek Sister James, Jen Martin is perky, naïve, understanding, scared and intimidated. It's not nearly as showy a role as Aloysius, but Martin holds her own with the more commandeering performers.

There is a fourth character in DOUBT who appears halfway through Act 2 but leaves her mark quite strongly: Mrs. Muller, the mother of the 12-year-old boy who may or may not have been molested by Father Flynn. Kym Welch is riveting in the role, and she makes a 10-minute cameo into a leading part. This is what acting is--reacting, responding, and forcing your will onto the other characters. Welch is simply sensational, so real, proving that on the stage, less is more. She gives the strongest performance in a show with a talent-studded cast in top form. Not surprisingly, she was rewarded for her bravura work by applause as she exited the stage.

Gillian Bertrand and Debbi Lastinger's costumes--mostly priest robes and nun attire--are appropriate and not too ostentatious. The scrumptious set is designed by the same actress playing Sister James, Jen Martin, and it's a very big compliment to say that it rivals some of James Cass' scenic concoctions. It's a busy set, especially the center principal's office, but it's not so busy that it distracts our eyes. The garden is especially effective, barren and haunting, with statues of saints and a leafless tree; it could be used in a horror story, which in its own way, DOUBT is. (What is more horrific than not knowing if your priest is a monster or a victim, a pedophilic criminal or an innocent target of a witch hunt?)

Jim Russell and JC Martin's sound is spot on; I particularly liked the use of the song "The End of the World." The lighting design of Brad Planchot and JC Martin is simple and effective.

DOUBT only runs one more weekend, so get your tickets while you can. It deserves to be seen by all thoughtful theatergoers who like top-notched acting and a director who obviously knows what he is doing. The show may not provide many answers to the problems it unearths, but it undoubtedly asks all the right questions.

For tickets, please call (813) 265-4000.

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