BWW Review: DOUBT, A PARABLE, Southwark Playhouse
When Sister Aloysius (Stella Gonet), St. Nicholas Church School's conservative and distrusting principal, learns from Sister James (Clare Latham) that Father Flynn (Jonathan Chambers) had a one-on-one meeting with Donald Muller - the first and only African-American pupil of the school - she is immediately alarmed, believing sexual misconduct must have occurred.
Her deep mistrust of the world is the catalyst for a direct conflict with the priest and Donald's own mother (Jo Martin), leading to pursuing her own path to justice at the expense of her own faith.
Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards, John Patrick Shanley's masterpiece - set in the Bronx in the Sixties - has its first London revival in ten years with direction by Ché Walker in a chilling and thought-provoking production. Performed in the round with a beautifully detailed set design by PJ McEvoy, the show is afraid to leaving its audience doubting.
Ecclesiastical hypocrisy, abuse, faith and sexuality are bound up in the meticulous search for a truth that never surfaces. Sister Aloysius bases her sentence on what Sister James saw: right after Father Flynn had taken Donald to the rectory by himself, the boy seemed shaken and scared, and the young nun could smell alcohol on his breath. The head nun refuses to even consider that the priest was punishing Donald for drinking the altar wine like he says.
A woman who's been hardened by life, Sister Aloysius's dryness is established from the start of the play. She doesn't trust her students nor the other teachers, and bears suspicion towards society and its progress (for instance her ban on ball-point pens, as they are a lazy substitute for fountain pens). She is the direct opposite of Sister James, her naïve and inherently trusting subordinate, who, though upset by the older woman's harshness, looks up to her.
Shanley's elegant writing, which avoids giving straight answers, is a masterclass in storytelling. The two show-stopping scenes (Mrs Muller in Sister Aloysius' office when confronted about her son being in danger, and the nun herself finally stepping up to the priest and accusing him directly) are glacially magnificent. Gonet and Martin's delivery is poignant and fearless, the latter needing only one scene to leave her mark on the whole piece.
Gonet is dignified and stern in her robes, the bow of her headpiece tied around her neck tightly and properly (while Latham's is looser and, in a way, bears a touch of modernity just like the Sister). Her poise and posture recall an education even sharper than that what she administers to her pupils.
Her step never falters - not when Father Flynn threatens to remove her from her position, nor when she is stunned at Mrs Muller's willingness to turn a blind eye in order to avoid having any more troubles - until her grand, final breakdown that leaves the audience listening to her sobs as the lights go out.
As the progressive and impressionable Sister James, Latham is gracious and bubbly, but unafraid to show vulnerability and self-doubt when her faith comes into question. Her blind trust towards the world might irk her superior to the point where, not having great strength of character, she tries to change to comply with her view of the world, but her relationship with her students is built on love and understanding, unlike the head nun's - even though ultimately they both want what's best for them.
Chambers' portrayal of Father Flynn swings from energetic in his animosity at being accused, to quietly terrified of his past being found out. If at times looking slightly unrehearsed, the actor's changes of tone and mood seem imperceptible when his faith and secrets go to war.
His standoff with Gonet is statuesque on McEvoy's stage. A path made of stone and stained glass with a short wooden fence summons the style of traditional Catholic churches. Instead of a typical rose window, a circle with the Eye of Providence takes up the middle of the cross. In Tim Lutkin's design, light comes from underneath the stage, the stained glass parts of the flooring and the Eye, glowing up and illuminating the character in a very fire-and-brimstone manner.
With a cathartic and significant production, Doubt, A Parable returns to the stage in well-calculated richness. Once again, it challenges audiences in audacious style, demonstrating the intrinsic nature of doubt, asking what is acceptable to lose on the path to justice, and what the latter ultimately is.
Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke