'Doubt' is intended to mess with your mind

Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Doubt" is a meaty nugget of a play. With only four characters, a rich slice of life is created, layering together themes of sexism, racism, morality, creativity and the hierarchy of power.

The purpose of the playwright (John Patrick Shanley) seems to be exploring the human capacity for both belief and deception, as opposed to venting against the propensity of Catholic priests for pedophilia. This controversial theme was still deep under wraps at the time the play was set: 1964. However, the so-called black-collar crime that unfortunately still haunts the Catholic Church serves as a compelling vehicle for this compact show with detailed cultural and psychological commentary.

Only one character knows for sure whether or not the priest is innocent, and that is the man himself, played with depth and nuance by Ed Christian. He opens the show, striding down to the edge of the stage in a flowing, colorful cassock and delivering a galvanizing mini-sermon which persuades us that "doubt is a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty." Mr. Christian is completely believable as the affable, caring, progressive priest who is nonetheless curiously defensive about inquiries into his past assignments.

Upholding the play's theme, doubt, is the formidable principal of a small Catholic school in the Bronx, Sister Aloysius, played by Shona Strausser. Despite her youth, Ms. Strausser is exceptionally convincing in her complex role as a crotchety old nun; a judgmental disciplinarian, the sister is not fond of the arts or other signs of weakness. We are set up to bristle at her strictness from her first entrance, where she strides into her office wielding a punishing ruler. "The heart must be warm, but the wits cold," says the stern sister to one of her teachers, a young innocent nun played by Christina Apathy. Ms. Apathy is aptly cast in her role, and does well portraying a kindly if flustered ingénue, although her acting is a tad overwrought.

The older woman admonishes Sister James to be less sympathetic, and more vigilant, as she tries unsuccessfully to draw her into suspecting Father Flynn of abuse. In a later scene, Father Flynn counters by warning the young sister that "the most innocent actions can appear sinister to the poisoned mind."

My favorite scene was beautifully delivered: a feisty confrontation between the two central characters: the congenial yet quirky priest sparring with the austere, authoritarian nun.

The script is clever and full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise is provided by the mother of the boy suspected of being the priest's victim. This small but juicy role is robustly played by a returning visitor to Perseverance, Marinda Anderson. Ms. Anderson persuasively embodies the stalwart, forthright, sensitive and protective mother. I hope we see more of her in future Juneau productions.

This play deals with adult themes and would certainly be rated R for content if it were a movie. Since it is set in a Catholic school, however, the language is discrete and intimations of wrongdoing are couched in metaphor, as when Sister Aloysius quips "the little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for."

At the end of the play, I thought Father Flynn had been wrongly accused, but my theater companion came to the opposite conclusion. We each had many reasons to uphold our interpretations, and this allowed for a lively discussion lasting nearly as long as the play.

Director Flordelino Lagundino told me after the 90-minute show that his aim was to get us doubting our decision at the end of each scene.

"Shanley (the playwright) definitely wants to mess with our minds," Lagundino said.

New information is revealed at every turn, yet there is no definitive proof. Lagundino said that during the rehearsal process, he and Christian decided whether the priest is innocent or not. Of course, that is privileged information! But, according to Lagundino, it really doesn't matter because the priest is going to "play it straight" either way. Either he is genuinely chagrined at being maligned, or he is flawlessly acting. Will his acting hoodwink you, too?

• Emily Kane can be reached at DoctorEm@aol.com

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