Doubt, A Parable

In the preface to his 2005 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama, John Patrick Shanley clearly defines his objective: to establish the value of embracing uncertainty. He also makes it clear that while his vehicle for illustrating this involves the possible molestation of a child by a Catholic priest, he is no way implying that the clergyman is guilty.

Jeanne Paulsen as Sister Aloysius
Jeanne Paulsen
as Sister Aloysius
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Shanley is to be commended for his forthrightness in setting the bar for himself. In this he is in good company, most notably that of George Bernard Shaw, whose prefaces are legendary. Our evaluative resources are also bolstered by Doubt's similarities to two other plays that lean heavily on their persuasive structure, David Mamet's Oleanna and David Auburn's Pulitzer and Tony-winning Proof.

Writing a full-length play in this mode is a noble quest. Consider "Shake-speare's" most famous arguments, the audience asides of Iago and Richard III. We never cease to be amazed at the logical virtuosity of these cunning monologues. Now imagine extending such a metaphor for 90 or 120 minutes.

In Doubt, Shanley cleverly gets us to buy into a revolving succession of points-of-view, first believing that the battle axe, Sister Aloysius has it in for Father Flynn; then we think that perhaps there is something suspect in Flynn's behavior; finally, we're not sure. Or at least some of us are not sure. Shanley walks a very fine line between ambiguity and judgment, relying on the audience to act as advocates for Flynn, requiring them to identify with the beleaguered priest and imagine that he may have felt a fair hearing impossible. Others, however, never get this far, and assume the man is guilty.

Such is the nature of the genre. Depending on direction, Oleanna and Proof can swing from misogynistic anthems to women's liberation revenge vehicles. Auburn even added a line to his play, after its Broadway run, to alter the balance.

So while the ambiguity of Shanley's script could probably be improved with a line or two from Sister Aloysius or her optimistic counterpart, Sister James—to the effect that Flynn was damned if he did, and damned if he didn't—director Bruce K. Sevy's production has no such discernable shortcomings.

Sam Gregory as Father Flynn and Jeanne Paulsen as Sister Aloysius
Sam Gregory as Father Flynn
and Jeanne Paulsen
as Sister Aloysius
Photo: Terry Shapiro
It would take a strong nun to stand up to the monolithic patriarchal hierarchy of the Church, and Jeanne Paulsen's Sister Aloysius, principal of St. Nicholas school in the Bronx in 1964, is exactly that. Paulsen imbues Aloysius with a steely resolve worthy of the Inquisition, the embodiment of certainty pitched against the forces of heterodoxy. Yet, as she explains, there is a warm heart behind her cold intellect, which manifests in her honesty with Sister James.

At first, the possibility of such frankness seems remote, given Aloysius' controlling manner, but beneath Sister James' required obedience is a questioning mind and pure heart that requires the older woman to justify her seemingly unassailable views. In less accomplished hands, such a battle of wills could easily take on stereotypical airs, but for the fourth time in the past two seasons (Mrs. Warren's Profession, You Can't Take It With You, Pride and Prejudice, and here), Nisi Sturgis plays an independent daughter (in flesh or in spirit) to Paulsen's eccentric matriarch.

Nisi Sturgis as Sister James
Nisi Sturgis
as Sister James
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Sturgis' depiction of Sister James' thoughtfulness, as an attentive listener mulling over a compelling statement or as a teacher in her own right presenting an alternate view, is rooted in the germinal silence where consciousness is transformed. It is a remarkable space that Sturgis shares with us in her lucid pursuit of Sister James, whom she transforms before our eyes.

As the focus of concern for these two nuns, Father Flynn remains a sympathetic character throughout. Even when Flynn apparently admits to allowing the student in question to drink from the communion wine, Shanley accommodates plausible explanations. He even contrasts Father Flynn's transgressions with Sister Aloysius' lie in the service of her suspicions.

Sam Gregory as Father Flynn
Sam Gregory
as Father Flynn
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Given the scale of the sexual molestation scandal within the Church (How nice that yesterday the pope finally admitted he is "ashamed"!)—and despite Shanley's even-handedness and ambiguity with the presentation of charges and circumstantial evidence—depicting Flynn as a sympathetic character is no easy task; yet, Sam Gregory hits all the right notes, mixing a breezy style in Flynn's clever sermons, and a genuine warmth in his interactions, with a sharp edge when dealing with Sister Aloysius.

Kim Staunton as Mrs. Muller
Kim Staunton
as Mrs. Muller
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Of course, the play would risk being merely an speculative exercise were it confined simply to the interplay between Sisters Aloysius and James and Father Flynn. It is Shanley's fourth character, Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy, who transforms the evening into a visceral experience. Without revealing the unexpected nature of the conversation between her and Sister Aloysius, suffice it to say that Mrs. Muller's point-of-view and revelations substantially alter the complexion of the story. Here, Kim Staunton compresses an entire evening's dramatic arc into one scene, beginning with deep-seated strength and intelligence, then revealing compassion beyond that shown by any of the religious figures, and finally brandishing a will equal to that of Sister Aloysius.

Four years after it premiered, Doubt still holds its own, though its tenuous ambiguity and its legacy as a parable are still threatened by the ongoing spotlight on the Church's sex scandal and Flynn's guilt by implication. The impressive emotional dynamics and plot developments of the story, however, remain untarnished, as we experience in Sevy's stellar production.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Doubt runs through May 17th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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