Theater Review: Don’t ‘Doubt’ this play
It would be inappropriate to say I enjoyed Pendragon Theatre’s production of “Doubt: A Parable.”
The play is, after all, focused on dark material: possible inappropriate sexual contact between a priest and a schoolboy, the first “negro” boy at a Catholic parish school in 1964.
The entire script is designed around drawing conflicts: new versus old, white versus black, professional versus friendly and welcoming, and man versus woman in the strict gender roles of the Catholic church, among others.
The script, and Pendragon’s production of it, is meant to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. The name of the play says it all: the audience is constantly thrown into doubt as the seasoned Sister Aloysius and Father Brendan Flynn go back and forth convincing the young Sister James about whether Father Flynn had inappropriate relations with the student, Donald Muller.
Sister Aloysius, played by local storyteller Fran Yardley, has a hunch that Father Flynn has intentions toward the child. We understand Sister Aloysius’ concerns and have respect for her experience and authority, though we may not agree with her methods. She sternly tells Sister James to stop relating to her students and making them feel welcome, and argues against music, art and ball-point pens. Yardley’s tall, wiry figure adds a sternness and authority to her portrayal of the character.
Sister Aloysius explains why she suspects Father Flynn in one word – “experience” – and Yardley’s delivery of the word tells an entire story about a past incident with another priest when she didn’t push as aggressively to prevent such an act and still regrets it. The details Sister James provides her with about the relationship between Donald and Father Flynn are enough to plant the seed of doubt in the minds of audience members.
But Father Flynn, played by Tyler Nye, is so good at convincing us that his relationship with Donald is innocent. Nye plays him with a Bronx accent, making him seem gritty and relatable rather than prim and proper as priests of Sister Aloysius’ generation tended to be. And it’s reasonable that Donald needs a friendly hand to help get him through the school year. Father Flynn seems so friendly. That is until Sister Aloysius baits him, and Nye brings out Father Flynn’s dark side.
The audience is one with Sister James, coming into the play happy-go-lucky and wanting to believe the best in people. Mackenzie Barmen plays her at the beginning with an innocence and passion that we admire, though it’s frowned upon by Sister Aloysius. But by the end, her tears and her beaten-down face reflect how we feel: full of doubt and confusion.
“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” Father Flynn says in his first sermon of the show. “When you are lost, you are not alone.”
The set, with stone floors and walls, plus a jagged ramp up to the preacher’s pulpit, is full of hardness and angles and adds to the viewers’ sense of discomfort. This doesn’t feel like a friendly place. Nor does the outside courtyard area, where fall has stripped the tree and shrubs of green leaves, and which is set up as a place of tension since priests and nuns sometimes run across each other there one-on-one, though the church requires a third party to be present.
The colors are harsh as well, with grays and browns in the set, lights that shine white on Sister Aloysius’ office, and the main costumes in the strict black and white of the church.
The only warm place is the pulpit, where Father Flynn wears bright green, and behind him is the colorful reflection of a stained-glass cathedral window. It reflects Flynn’s philosophy of welcomeness in the church, which we come to be suspicious of.
The only other time bright colors show up are when Sister Aloysius meets with Donald’s mother, played by Rachel Ann Jerome. Mrs. Muller wears a blue and green flowered dress, and her character draws attention to the fact that the truth can sometimes be confused and messy rather than clear.
“Sometimes things aren’t black and white,” Mrs. Muller tells the nun.
John Patrick Shanley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 stage script, intended to make the audience uncomfortable. With this play, he asks the audience to think about the crisis of child molestation by Catholic priests, and he wants us to decide how much certainty we need before taking drastic measures to prevent future incidents. He wants us to think about where we draw the line in that situation in the need for a black-and-white truth.
“The truth makes for a bad sermon,” Father Flynn tells Sister James. “It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion.”
So did I enjoy “Doubt”? No, I didn’t enjoy it.
But it was incredibly well done and thought provoking, bringing life to Shanley’s script with choices that work and complex portrayal of characters that confound our moral compass. I would recommend the play to any adult who can spare a few nerves, emotions and brain cells on a summer evening.
The play is on a break this week and next as Pendragon’s repertory completes its run of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but “Doubt” picks back up on Friday, Aug. 23, with five more productions, including a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Aug. 25, before the run ends. Go to www.pendragontheatre.org for more information, or call 518-891-1854.