nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
October 14, 2012
As befits a play called Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's 2004 drama offers little in the way of assurance. To read the script is to encounter the creaking conventions of a melodrama--- full of direct-address sermons, dialogue punctuated with exclamation points, and archetypal characters who each stand for an important idea. But as this fable about a mid-1960's Catholic parish unfolds on stage at T. Schreiber Studio, it's the vast spaces in between that matter most. To be sure, someone is right about the elusive events that propel the action, and someone else is mournfully wrong. The only trouble is that we don't know who's who.
This production, directed by the Studio's co-artistic director Peter Jensen, ably captures the spirit of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play (which was adapted into a 2007 film starring Meryl Streep) and, thanks in part to a set by D Shuyler Burks and costumes by Sherry Martinez, it slowly pulls us into the time and place where it's set. And while the show features some uneven acting choices, especially in its first half, you're never distracted from the larger themes.
The story revolves around Sister Mary Aloysius, the rigid principal of the middle school at St. Nicholas Church in the Bronx, who grows concerned that a popular young priest is molesting one of the boys. That priest, Father Flynn, has recently been on a mission to help the Church, as he puts it, "take on a more familiar face, reflect the local community," partly in the wake of the first release of documents from Vatican II. Sister Aloysius wants no part of this kind of progressive change, and Father Flynn's embrace of it only furthers her suspicions. Caught in the mix is Sister James, an eager idealist who witnessed the only shred of evidence concerning the possible seduction, and, wracked with uncertainty, soon begins to lose her innocence and her sleep.
As Sister Aloysius and Sister James, respectively, Alice Barrett Mitchell and Nora Jane Williams share a soft, lovely camaraderie helped along by their relative similarity in age, which feels more fitting at certain times than at others. Mike Roche cuts a gentle figure as Father Flynn, and his later flashes of irritation appropriately hint at something darker. You can certainly understand why Father Flynn would develop a loyal following, whether among the boys or the congregation.
But especially in the early scenes, it feels that there is both more tension, and more humor, in the script than the cast has yet fully mined. Genuinely funny lines (like a discussion of the pagan nature of Frosty the Snowman) prompted little laughter at the performance I attended, while a pertinent plot twist passed by without much emphasis. The inconsistency of the thick Bronx accents among the cast felt distancing at times. As it clips along, though, the story is likely to absorb all parts of you, and when Brenda Crawley shows up with an excellent performance as the boy's mother in the play's most chilling scene, you won't be able to turn away.
In his dedication, Shanley praises "the many orders of Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes." In recent months, that service itself has come under harsh scrutiny from the all-male hierarchy of the Church, who've condemned the nuns for not focusing more on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Perhaps that's why, in this version, I was more acutely aware than ever before about the vast power gap between the genders, and the ways in which many institutions, from Wall Street to Washington, have suffered mightily from a lack of female involvement. That this highly relevant message echoes throughout the Gloria Maddox Theater is a testament both to Shanley and to the fine artists who've assembled this production.