By Eric Marchese | NB Indy Special
John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” is one of the few plays that can be said to delve into intellectual concepts while being emotionally powerful, using two characters locked in opposition to examine human nature.
All the more intriguing as both characters play their cards close to the vest, not wanting to give their opponent an advantage. And so ‘Doubt’ generates incredible tension, with each successive scene raising the stakes – but leaving it up to us to decide the real ‘truth’.
Directed by Eric Modyman, the Newport Theater Arts Center‘s new production of “Doubt” proves the durability and power of the 2004 play’s script, which covers enormous ground, morally and otherwise, in the span of an hour and a half. tight.
This is St. Nicholas, a fictional Catholic church and school in the Bronx, circa 1964. The parish priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Troy Stafford Whitely), takes a progressive view of his role, choosing to befriend rather than to discipline the school. male teenage students.
An incident involving Flynn, which could be construed as inappropriate behavior on his part towards one of his students, appears to have been resolved – but it comes to the attention of the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Della Lisi Kerr ).
The fact that the boy in question is the first black student in the parish further upsets morale.
In terms of personality, beliefs, and temperament, Sister Aloysius is Flynn’s polar opposite, a stern, no-nonsense scolder who distrusts and trusts no one.
Shanley deliberately creates ambiguity, a brilliant approach that pushes us to reflect and analyze. The play raises countless questions but provides no answers. The more issues it describes, the more confused we feel sifting through our own thoughts and feelings towards the characters.
We see right away that Sister Aloysius will not stop her crusade against Father Flynn until she rids the parish – and perhaps even the church itself – of him. In uncharted waters, she proceeds cautiously, implying everything but saying nothing.
Flynn and Aloysius are as similar as oil and water, but Modyman and company don’t dwell on this issue. Their subtle approach pays off with the series’ commendable blend of character study with a more familiar element – a battle of wills between two adversaries.
To trap and get rid of Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius enlists Sister James (Victoria Leigh Serra), a novice who desperately wants to please her superior but finds Father Flynn kind and utterly sympathetic.
Shanley’s story wouldn’t have worked had it been set well before or after 1964. Her play brilliantly portrays gender and civil rights issues of the time in broad strokes, and NTAC’s showmanship clarifies and refines the scenario.
The issues of gender and social hierarchy described by Shanley are highlighted when Sister Aloysius invites Mrs. Muller, the mother of the black student (Roslynn Samone Glasco), to her office to determine the boy’s future. Shanley uses the scene to further escalate the tension while pointing out the gaping social disparities present in our society 60 years ago.
We instantly see Aloysius’ intolerance of anything “inappropriate”, and Shanley shows us the degrees of cunning and calculation she’s willing to employ to “outsmart” anyone who stands in her way.
Modyman’s exceptional cast leaves us in no “doubt” that in writing her play, Shanley touched on something deep.
Kerr’s hidden Aloysius is stern and self-righteous, suspicious of everyone around her and unable to tolerate anyone who doesn’t look like her. She is convinced that she is best equipped to judge others and treat them accordingly.
With a sharp edge and sarcasm in her voice, Kerr avoids stereotyping Aloysiyus, rounding out the woman’s sternness with more sympathetic qualities, tempered by the character’s sense of right and wrong. Kerr subtly approaches her portrayal, showing that Sister Aloysius is both human and fearsome – and the two qualities aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
Each act opens with Father Flynn delivering a sermon. Whitely reveals Flynn’s dynamism in the way his character steps out from behind the pulpit, moves and reinforces his words with gestures.
Father Flynn adopts leniency and a friendly demeanor as the best way to make himself understood by the boys. While being sincere at all times, Whitely’s face conveys Flynn’s welcoming temperament. Late in the play, while being attacked by Sister Aloysius, the actor’s Flynn stands up to him, showing the starch the sister wants to see in Sister James but is unable to get.
Sister Aloysius berates Sister James for being too easily influenced and easily impressed. James doesn’t have the stomach for the machinations and tactics Aloysius used to try to bring down Father Flynn.
Serra, her voice often floating, reveals the devoted nature of her character and the fear and uncertainty that results from Aloysius continually grinding her down. By the second act, Sister James has calmed down markedly, and Serra shows us the distraught young woman, unable to find the joy of teaching.
Modyman’s skillful directing clearly sketches the onerous weight that hangs over its three main characters – Flynn, Aloysius and James – at all times, born of the restrictive moral obligations of their vocation.
While Mrs. Muller’s character only appears in one scene towards the play’s conclusion, Glasco etches a memorable portrayal of a fearless vocal defender of her preteen son, who is essentially helpless whether at home or at school.
Glasco shows that Mrs. Muller is first submissive to Sister Aloysius, then grows increasingly (and rightly) angry with her. As Glasco shows us, the woman is outraged that the sister would attack the only person who showed kindness to her son – Father Flynn.
Jim Huffman’s set design at NTAC, of Sister Aloysius’ private office, nave and pulpit, and exterior gardens, picks up on the simple elegance present in Shanley’s screenplay.
“Doubt” is a game of concepts and ideas, but one that arouses our emotions – a theatrical rarity. Be sure to catch him while you can, because – no doubt – you’ll be debating his issues long after the final call.
Newport Theater Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Until October 9. Duration (including intermission): 1h35. 8 p.m. Thurs-Sat, 2 p.m. Sun. Tickets: $20 to $25. Ticket Purchase/Information: (949) 631-0288, www.ntaconline.com