Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, now being performed by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre (to 8/1), falls
under the category of a well made play - a detective story of sorts - with a classical inevitability about it, while serving
up the called for reversals or plot twists at the conclusion. Directed by Jeffrey Cordell with an eye for the space
and a close-reading of the text, the thrust stage in the Heymann Theatre gave the show an intimate feel; with the actors front
and center and playing to all three sides of the house, the pacing and tempo were well suited to psychological probing that
This was my third trip back to the 1964 Catholic grade school in the Bronx, where a priest is
accused by an older nun of sexual wrongdoing, the alleged crime reported by an impressionable younger nun, who never actually
witnessed it, and involved a 12-year old black boy. I saw a touring company at the National Theatre in 2007 with Tony
Award Winner Cherry Jones and Olney Theatre's production last year, and though I enjoyed both, the proscenium staging
in bigger theaters, left me with a wider view of the story, but with less understanding of the characterization.
I've not yet seen the movie, though I've witnessed excerpts galore, particularly in the run-up to last year's
Academy Awards. PICT's production raises more questions then it answers, but then if you're a fan of this play,
that's a good thing. Not since David Mamet's Oleanna has a theater audience
had so much to chew on before, during and after the show.
The play examines the philosophical paradox of the origin
of good and evil: how can good intentions lead to bad outcomes and vice versa? How can a lie - storytelling or
parables - give a better approximation of truth than a single fact or a nexus of them?
Something occurred back at the
rectory between Father Flynn (David Whalen) and an unseen black boy, but what? Sister Aloysius (Kate Young) seems bent on
ridding herself of this priest, but is it because of a crime he committed or character defect or are some unconscious resentments
she's harboring clouding her judgment? Has good-natured Sister James' (Meghan Heimbecker) lack of experience,
passion for teaching, and need for personal connection obscured the obvious or given her the clearest view of the truth?
Has the only too-worldly-wise Mrs. Muller (Maria Becoates-Bey) seen the struggle between the nun and priest for what it is
or is she willing to look the other way, to keep the peace on the home front, while biding her time till her son graduates?
These are only a few of the issues that Doubt will leave unresolved. The characters lack as much of a back
story as they do finality.
This time around I see Doubt as more of a collision of two irreconcilable world
views, generations, temperaments, and, as the text makes clear, genders, than I do sexual impropriety, though to be sure it
is there. The older Sister Aloysius, played by Ms. Young with insinuating guile, is an Old Testament type who will never
accept the changes of Vatican II, and the love and compassion of the younger Father Flynn, while wrapped in a charismatic
cloak of career opportunism, are an anathema to her. She's looking for something on him from the get go.
In Sister Aloysius's assessment of education, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy hangs over her world, where the
top three students from every grade are known to her always. People who work and work hard are to be rewarded, not the
intelligent, and certainly not the privileged. Things come too easily for Father Flynn, who seems to trump her at every
juncture in the early going, and this Sister has a long memory.
PICT's director Jeffrey Cordell has centered the
battle-of-wills on the character of Sister James, played forcefully by Ms. Heimbecker. Relegated to straight woman or
foil status in previous versions (and the movie, as near as I can tell), Ms. Heimbecker believably wrestles with her character's
emotional conscience from A to Z. With the twin voices of certainty and denial whispering persuasively in her ears,
she shows the audience what amounts to a conversion experience in her stellar performance.
Sister Aloysius has Father Flynn within her sights, however, in this show her take is as simple as it is straightforward:
she sees him as a force of evil. Ms. Young's portrayal in the penultimate scenes plays like an exorcism; she'll
do what it takes, and go where she needs to, to get him gone.
Mr. Cordell has chosen to play
Ms. Becoates-Bey's character in a poetic way, with an elegance that seems at variance with Mrs. Muller's middle class
roots. While it does set up a contrast between the religious and secular world, the formal attire seem out of place.
A character that's on stage for no more than eight minutes should up the stakes considerably. Perhaps I'm responding
to earlier versions of Mrs. Muller, who were live wires from beginning to end, but the understated performance didn't
feel as satisfying.
Doubt for me also comes across as a play about false
memory and its consequences: when a touch of the wrist is transformed into a sexual advance, what protections are afforded
the accused? Where can you go in the Church or your chosen profession when your reputation is destroyed? The campaign
of threat and character assassination is almost a political one, and a far-seeing cleric may want to cut his losses and move
on when confronting this kind of sustained PR nightmare.
On the other hand Father Flynn's personality, interpreted
adroitly by Mr. Whalen, represents something of a cipher. If the good sister looks to be bearing false witness, then
he's due some consideration as a false prophet. Father Flynn's all compassion and kindness when he can ply Sister
James and the children with his charm; when he can't his actions look manipulative at the least, coldly calculating at
the worst. And when the extent of the principal's tactics comes into full view, he's suddenly playing by the
book and invoking the chain-of-command. Where's the Good News in this?
If there's a tragic
figure here it is Sister Aloysius. The extraordinary reversal at the conclusion will leave you wondering, about the
meaning - which of the many possible interpretations are you to take away; and the legitimacy - was it earned? Whatever,
the doubt that has crept into everyone's world, leveling and humanizing them in the process, has finally penetrated her
own. While I can travel with Mr. Shanley when he tackles unfettered certainty as a moral problem, I can't share
his embrace of doubt as a moral virtue. Doubt may be a necessary way station on the road to truth, tolerance, and growth,
but if it is the endpoint of life's journey, I think I'd rather be left behind. Mr. Shanley, I feel certain,
would agree to disagree!
Scenic designer Gianni Downs constructed
a simple Shaker-like set, with four hemi-circular windows behind one door, using brown/blue/green color palette, brown desk,
credenza, and chairs, ringing all with a brownstone path. The Sisters of Charity attire was nicely invoked by Jane Wilder-O'Connor
while salmon-peach coat and dotted pill box hat, and florid dress looked stunning, if not out of place on Mrs. Muller; and
a big plus for the imaginative bright blue chasuble in Father Flynn's "Intolerance" speech suggesting the vanity
of the character or the chastening of Sister Aloysius. Sound designer Zachary Brown's choir chants and grackling
were quietly suggestive while lighting of Andrew David Ostrowski strikingly profiled the actor's faces and showed both
the muted and bright colors of the set and costumes to best advantage. Dramaturg Patrick Simone pulled together a nice
program in this his first effort at PICT.
This is an important play on the American theatrical landscape of the early
twenty-first century. PICT has mounted a first-rate production with clear direction, good casting, and excellent design
which will leave you no doubt that you're seeing something special.
check: Excellent, low to moderate, with some high sound levels during emotional outbursts
Program notes: Excellent,
with playwright's preface excerpted, director's article, and 1964 timeline
Applause meter: Highly recommended,
Runtime: About 95 minutes with no intermission.
Photo credits: Suellen Fitzsimmons