BWW Review: DOUBT at Studio Theatre is Gripping
Is it possible for a play to be prophetic as it ages? Can one scandal replicate its behavior in another, and is there something to be learned from the continued shortcomings of societal institutions?
Doubt may have seemed like a provocative and timely exploration of the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal when it debuted on Broadway. Fifteen years later, Studio Theatre's gripping production of John Patrick Shanley's play takes on renewed vigor in light of the #MeToo movement and the church's continual failure to address the greatest ecumenical crisis since Martin Luther.
Set in 1964 at the fiction parish of St. Nicholas Catholic Church and School in the Bronx. Doubt follows what happens when a no-nonsense, old school principal, Sister Aloysius (Sarah Marshall), suspects that the parish priest Father Flynn (Christian Conn), has engaged in inappropriate behavior with a student. Armed with only hearsay and suspicion, she seeks to learn the truth about what actually did happen, despite being racked with internal doubts of faith and of society to do the right thing.
Most remarkable about Doubt is that despite the story being one we hear so frequently; it nevertheless remains a gripping intellectual drama. That's a credit to Shanley who has layered the play with many internal conflicts and struggles, making the play's climax seem all the more provocative.
Also masterful was Shanley's setting of the play in 1964, which was when the Catholic Church's Vatican II Council was struggling with how to make Catholicism more progressive. That internal, inter-generational debate is played out between Sister Aloysius, who believes that the religious order is different than the parishioners they serve, and Father Flynn who has no problem with secular music or inviting the boys' basketball team to the rectory after practice. Suddenly we are left to wonder whether the good Sister's suspicions are in response to the changing times or to someone whom she views as a threat.
Sarah Marshall commands this production in the role of Sister Aloysius. Having grown up in a Catholic household, I heard horror stories about "the nuns" from my parents and grandparents. How they could strike fear in your soul with one look and showed no mercy. Draped in a full length habit, Marshall is all that and more.
By contrast the dashing Christian Conn is the warm, inviting, and progressive Father Flynn. Watching him coach the students' gym class, you see how everyone in the parish could love this guy. He's down to earth, funny, and his Boston accent makes him feel like someone you'd hangout with at a ballgame.
However, beneath the veneer lies someone equally as cold and steely as Marshall's Sister Aloysius. Where this production crackles is the confrontations between Marshall and Conn. Both have a presence leaving you unsure of what the truth is, leaving you, with, well, doubt?
Amelia Pedlow and Tiffany Thompson round out the cast as the teacher and mother of the boy in question. In many ways the youthful optimism of Pedlow's Sister James is the inherent desire for internal peace sought by all of us. Meanwhile Thompson's brief, yet powerful appearance represents the cynical realism that greets the world every day.
Enhancing Shanley's writing is Matt Torney's direction. Taking simple things like personal space, Torney turns them into weapons for the intellectual chess match between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. One scene has Conn's Flynn give Pedlow's James a pat on the back, a move so subtle and yet measured in the manipulative battle to win her affections.
Daniel Conway and Wade Laboissonniere deserve immense credit for turning Studio Theatre into a church with their set and costume design. Everything from the vestments and rosaries to the gray rock walls makes the theatre feel like a cathedral. All that was missing were the kneelers in the seats.
Throughout the play and Studio's production, there's a nagging feeling as if to say, "I've seen this before." However, while the feeling may have once been limited to the church, the #MeToo movement has established that the same pattern of behavior and cover-ups extended to other sectors of society including the entertainment industry, financial sector, and political world.
The full name of the play is Doubt: A Parable, a fitting title if ever there was one. Jesus used parables to teach as does Shanley. His message that even though stories like that of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn did happen, it's up to us to make sure they do not happen again.
Runtime: 95 minutes with no intermission.