“Doubt: A Parable” has not lost its glow. It earned bravos at Stagecrafters on opening night.
“Doubt: A Parable” has not lost its glow. In 2005, the play won multiple awards – Tony, Pulitzer, Drama Desk. Nearly 20 years later, the bravos it drew at Stagecrafters on opening night suggest it has also earned an enduring seat in the American canon.
From the start, director Dave Ebersole and his production team grab your attention: broadcasts of world-changing 1960s events are punctuated with intermittent radio static; on a semi-dark stage, three women sit stone-faced in distinctive garb, dwarfed by luminous cathedral windows. It is 10 minutes before the play begins and already the stage pulsates with awe and mystery.
“Doubt” is set in 1964 at St. Nicholas Roman Catholic church in the Bronx, where Sister Aloysius is disturbed by the thought that Father Flynn is sexually involved with Donald Muller, a 12-year-old African-American altar boy. Relentless in pursuit of the truth, Aloysius drags two unwilling women – Sister James and Donald's mother – into her inquiry.
Strong acting makes all four actors seem so very real, and likable, that you feel their point of view. Nolan Maher creates a personable Father Flynn who embodies the reform directives of Vatican II on liberalizing the church's relationship to its flock. Maher is a show-within-a-show in delivering Flynn's parable sermons: the sailor lost at sea to illustrate the positive value of doubt; the parable of the torn pillow to show the evil of gossip.
But much like Father Flynn, the parables do not add up. The lost-at-sea sailor is sustained more by blind faith than doubt (we never learn if the sailor survived); the parable about pernicious gossip is self-serving. While Father Flynn comes across as vital, he is also a tad vainglorious.
Sister Aloysius is rooted in the old way, insisting that an imperious bearing is necessary to nurture and protect her children. Oddly, in the skilled hands of Heather Ferrel, Aloysius turns out to be the play's most endearing character. There is a tragedy and a hint of misdoings in her earlier life. A sly humor sneaks into her moral probity; at times, she is the only character who makes you want to laugh.
You never find yourself looking at your watch because “Doubt” is a 90-minute play of burgeoning tension. You sympathize with young Sister James, played by Erin Neupauer who does the bidding of Aloysius, up to a point, but torn loyalties render her malleable. Mrs. Muller, played by Britt Fauzer, is more sure of herself in standing up to Aloysius. Through her, we learn that Donald's father beats the boy because "he is that way."
“Doubt” is full of ironic political insight. Father Flynn is the post-Vatican II "liberal," but when pressured by Sister Aloysius he hides inside hierarchical authority – plotting, threatening and cajoling. He manipulates the confused feelings of Sister James. Even as he retreats into traditional church practices, he violates that protocol when it suits his interests, as when he barges into the office of Aloysius without a "third party present."
But Flynn meets his match in Aloysius. She, too, is full of guile. Though powerless in the face of male hierarchy, she constructs a lie to trick Flynn into a more truthful mode of action. This is the abiding irony of “Doubt”: It is old-school Aloysius who makes constructive use of modern doubt in the hope of arriving at sustainable faith. You never know for sure if Father Flynn is guilty, but he does not come out of this looking good – and neither does the church.
The Stagecrafters show is a strong, imaginative production that succeeds on multiple levels. The world of Roman Catholic tradition may seem exotic to outsiders; “Doubt” does capture the distinctive turmoil of the modern Catholic Church and the special burden of its sex scandals.
At the same time, “Doubt” holds up as a metaphor for the pervasive incertitude that has engulfed the entire American society, forcing the individual to fall back on personal values for moral perspective. “Doubt” does what only the best plays have the power to do: It captures the spirit of an age.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Doubt: A Parable” will run through Oct 1. Tickets are available at 215-247-8881.