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BWW Reviews: 1st Stage in Tysons Revives DOUBT

John Patrick Shanley's thought-provoking drama DOUBT, A PARABLE certainly has earned its share of accolades since it premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2004. Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, Shanley's screenplay for the film adaptation was also nominated for an Academy Award.

The single act play has been brought back in a meticulously detailed production by 1st Stage in Tysons. The playwright's work is reason enough to head to the intimate space 1st Stage calls its home near Tysons Galleria. Shanley's tense, four-person rumination on scandal, gender roles, Catholic church politics, and the power of doubt to bind us or tear us apart is worth a look any time it finds its way to a stage.

I just wish the 1st Stage production had more of a spark to ignite the passionate debate and ambiguous mystery Shanley has written.

St. Nicholas Church and School in 1964 is run with an iron hand by stern, traditional Sister Aloysius Beauvier - played by Jessica Lefkow who I will swear was channeling Eve Arden throughout her performance. Sister Aloysius firm views of the church and education are at odds with two younger associates. The first is Sister James, the neophyte teacher who is trying to find her way among the system at St. Nicholas and maintain her enthusiasm for making a difference in the lives of her students. Jenny Donavan displays the innocence and growing maturity of Sister James with ease.

The main adversary of Sister Aloysius is the young, progressive priest Father Flynn, recently assigned to St. Nicholas to run the parish and teach religion and physical education to the boys. Flynn is one of the "new Catholics," that is to say he takes the ideas of breaking down barriers between the clergy and their flock, and to treat the students with more compassion than Sister Aloysius would care to imagine. The young priest is played by Rob Jansen, his open nature mingled with a je ne sais quoi that suits the volatile role.

And therein lies the tale - or at least the possibility of a tale. Picking up on the odd behavior of the school's only black student - the unseen Donald Muller - Sister James takes her concerns to Sister Aloysius, the school's principal. Either knowing in her heart something terrible has happened or simply hanging her shingle on a sliver of doubt, the older nun embroils Sister James in a two-person witch hunt to root out Father Flynn's suspected indiscretion with the boy.

Eventually, Sister Aloysius brings in Donald's mother and gets far more than she bargained for in her encounter with Mrs. Muller - played with quiet understatement by Lolita Marie. The nun may have her certainty, Mrs. Muller - well, not so much.

The church is changing, too fast for some, just as the United States probably lost some innocence after JFK was assassinated. Is Flynn open-minded yet devout or has he crossed a line with a student? Can intolerance destroy just as doubt whittles away confidence in perceived roles in a church or school or the outside world? These are just some of the questions brought up in DOUBT. The nature of doubt - brought up in the play's opening moments in a lovely homily delivered by Father Flynn to the audience, standing in for the Irish and Italian families of St. Nicholas - is interwoven throughout the play by the master storyteller Shanley has proven himself to be.

In the 1st Stage production, the actors have a firm handle on the characters and work together to maintain the play's edgy atmosphere. I kept waiting for a little more spark among the performers, but the production as a whole came off as more subdued than I would have expected, especially given Shanley's script. The box office said the show runs 90 minutes, but I swear my watch clocked it in at about 110. Ten minutes may not seem like a big difference in the running time, but I hope they tighten things back up to an hour and a half as the run progresses.

Director Michael Dove's eye for detail and overall sense of creating the play's setting works well. Set designer John Bowhers provides an impressionistic background, while in the foreground Sister Aloysius' utilitarian office looks authentic. Kyle Grant's lighting design helps move the action from the church, to the grounds and back into the principal's office seamlessly. Brittany Graham's costume design's follow the period and the actual habit's worn by the Sisters of Mercy in the early 1960s, featuring a black bonnet and caped habit.

DOUBT is subtitled "a parable," or a short, fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude, standard of conduct or religious principle. On this account, 1st Stage is to be commended for bringing to the stage on of the best plays of the last decade. Perhaps the cast will find more of a muse to enliven their performances in the coming weeks.

DOUBT is the third of five productions in 1st Stage's seventh season. Next up: OLD WICKED SONGS by Jon Marans (April 10 - May 3) and directed by Michael Chamberlain; and THE GOOD COUNSELOR by Kathryn Grant and directed by Alex Levy (May 29 - June 21).

1st Stage in Tysons presents DOUBT, A PARABLE by John Patrick Shanley

DOUBT runs February 6 - March 1, 2015 at 1st Stage in Tysons, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA 22102. 703.854.1856. The theatre is now accessible by Metro via the Spring Hill Station, North exit on the Silver Line.

Go HERE for 1st Stage online.

Director Michael Dove. Featuring: Rob Jansen as Father Flynn; Jessica Lefkow as Sister Aloysius;
Jenny Donovan as Sister James; and Lolita Marie as Mrs. Muller

Set Design John Bowhers. Costume Design Brittany Graham. Lighting Design Kyle Grant. Sound Design Thomas Sowers. Props Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa. Stage Manager Tré Wheeler. Technical Director Aaron Fensterheim

PHOTO CREDIT: Teresa Castracane/1st Stage

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