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Theatre Review (NYC): Doubt – Who’s Watching Your Class?

Can a contemporary audience view the Tony Award-winning Doubt in the manner it was intended?

Eight years after playwright John Patrick Shanley created this blend of nostalgia and provocation, is it now a different world than 2004 when Jerry Sandusky was “Touchdown Jerry” and working as an assistant coach under the mighty shadow of Joe Paterno? The success to Doubt’s effectiveness as a piece of theatre is the tension between resolution and uncertainty with institutional pressures always pushing the characters into unwanted positions. The T. Schreiber Studio & Theater’s production of Doubt, although generally well-directed and acted, is not balanced enough between the two main characters, accuser and accused pedophile, to stand up to our momentary pendulum swing of “guilty, guilty, guilty.”

Left to Right: Nora Jane Williams (Sister James) & Mike Roche (Father Flynn)

Seemingly ripped from a headline story (see the current state of the BBC,) Father Flynn (Mike Roche) is suspected of inappropriate behavior with an altar boy. The story has contemporary resonance, and judging by the audience reactions to Shanley’s agitative riposte, the play is not so well known that it doesn’t get a post-show reaction in the elevator, but Father Flynn, under the direction of Peter Jensen, appears as an index of pedophiliac characteristics: charming? Check; overly concerned with the welfare of a troubled child? Check; seemingly unaware of the reality of his situation? Check. Criminal? Check. It may be unfair to the play, but what’s fair in a story like this. Nothing.

The fierce moral guardian standing between Fr. Flynn and his supposed victim is the principal, Sr. Aloysius Beauvier, a not completely benevolent monarch in the kingdom of St. Nicholas School, portrayed here by Alice Barrett Mitchell. For this play to succeed in establishing the state of mind of the title, the two opponents, Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius, must be equal within the framework of the drama. Of course, the equality doesn’t last and that is our dramatic conclusion, but for awhile at least, Sr. Aloysius must be proportionately repellent and attractive in her role as the child’s savior in the same way that Fr. Flynn must be repellent (think about those long fingernails) and attractive as a kind man who might be misjudged.

Ms. Mitchell sits behind her desk in her nun robes with her knees apart as a man would, a leader in her role as a principal, but she is not convincingly steely enough to be resist our early allegiance. There’s a reason why actresses in this role often go queen of mean. Or maybe we, as the audience, are so removed from the scary nun cartoon of previous generations that Sister Aloysius just doesn’t intimidate us to extent that she frightens her young apprentice teacher, Sr. James.

The dynamism of the play lies within the tennis match swaying of conviction – personified by Sr. James (Nora Jane Williams) the innocent who just doesn’t know what to believe except that she enjoys her job and is perplexed by those who might take that joy away from her. Ms. Williams is touching in her confusion and loss of innocence and has an uncanny resemblance to Amy Adams, who portrayed Sr. James in the 2008 Meryl Streep movie.

Part of the play’s deliberate disorientation is reinforced by the time period, early 1960s when the characters are allowed the innocence (or repression) of the era. The play’s singularity lies in moments when the characters tear through the nostalgia (the Kennedy assassination, transistor radios, ballpoint pens) and unearth timeless conflicts inherent in differences in race, gender, and faith.

Left to Right: Alice Barrett Mitchell (Sister Aloysius) & Brenda Crawley (Mrs. Muller)

The forceful Brenda Crawley as the altar boy’s mother, Mr. Muller, brings one such confrontation. The actress needs to make an impact; the character is only on stage for moments, but she delivers to the audience the core of the play – the dilemma of evil and of lesser evils which are institutionally supported, for the temporary good of the individual. Ms. Crawley convincingly scans the horizon for danger and makes her priority “just ’til June.” The other choices confronting her son are framed in words of homicide: the boy’s prior schoolmates were going to “kill him” and her husband will “kill” him. Not much of an option really, and Ms. Crawley is persuasive as the parent backed into a tortuous corner.

The set design (D. Schuyler Burks) as always at the T. Schreiber is artful; for example, effectively underscoring the scene where Sr. Aloysius is wrapping up delicate plants for a winter to come, both in metaphor and reality.

Should suspicions of abuse be taken seriously? Of course, but to what extent? There are those who spoke up too late in the Sandusky situation, but then again, there’s Bernie Fine, the Syracuse assistant basketball coach who has lost his job amidst accusations of abuse, accusations that are now proving to be unfounded. Wouldn’t doubt have been welcome there?

Doubt runs through Nov. 18. Photo credit: Daniel Terna

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