Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2009
"If I am right Thy grace impart still in the right to stay. If I am wrong Oh, teach my heart to find the better way."
– Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Founder of the Sisters of Charity
Doubt is a small play (90 minutes – no intermission) about many big ideas, not the least of which is the title. It is set in 1964, a year when doubt was definitely creeping in to the complacent post-war American psyche, following the shocking assassination of President Kennedy the year before. In 1964 the Beatles “invaded,” President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, and the first large public demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War were held. The Roman Catholic Church was adjusting to the reforms of the Second Ecumenical Council in 1962. Playwright John Patrick Shanley was 14.
Doubt is set in St. Nicholas Elementary School in the Bronx. (Shanley was born in the Bronx to working-class parents and attended parochial school.) The principal, Sister Aloysius (Johnna Murray) is feeling the pressures of the change fomenting in the outside world in the form of Father Flynn (Paul Murphy), a new priest assigned to the parish, who is warm and open and charismatic in all the ways that Aloysius (and the Church) have been cold and rigid and insular; and in the form of 8th grader George Muller, the school’s first black student. George is assigned to the homeroom of the young, enthusiastic, and innocent Sister James (Brenda Galenus), but it is Father Flynn who takes a special interest in the boy.
When Sister Aloysius begins to suspect that there may be something inappropriate about Father Flynn’s interest in George, and shares that concern with Sister James and the boy’s mother (Jenn Smith), doubt sets in.
We speak of “planting the seed of doubt,” as if doubt is a living entity which will inevitably germinate and grow, sometimes out of all proportion. Once planted, Aloysius’ seed does grow and change, as organisms will.
But the doubt under discussion is not just the central mystery of whether or not Father Flynn is a homosexual pedophile, it is also the doubt of whether or not the old ways are the best ways. Shanley wants us to see in Aloysius and Flynn Old Church versus in New Church, which is hard to do when New Church is covered by the shadow of possible sexual abuse, something that we know existed then (and no doubt exists now) and was actively covered up and denied.
It is important to the balance of this play that the audience find equal virtues and vices in Aloysius and Flynn, and here is where Kate Gulliver’s production for the Town Players of Pittsfield fails utterly. While Murray clearly presents a three-dimensional Aloysius, Murphy never brings us the charismatic side of Flynn. If we never find anything to like about the man, we will never be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. It is easy to champion a woman – crotchety, stubborn, and set in her ways though she may be – who is determined to protect a child.
I deliberately didn’t watch the DVD of the 2008 film of Doubt, which was released less than two weeks before this production opened, because I knew that Johnna Murray was no Meryl Streep, but I also knew that Streep was no Johnna Murray. Murray is a versatile and engaging performer who has delighted me over the years in roles as diverse as Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, Maureen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Freddie Mac, the jolly green mortgage giant, in last year’s Panto of Jack and the Beanstalk (all at the Ghent Playhouse.) I knew that whatever interpretation she brought to this role, it would be thought-provoking and well worth watching. I was right.
If this is your first glimpse of Murray, you will find it hard to believe that she is capable of looking lovely. Wrapped tightly in her Sisters of Charity bonnet and habit, hidden behind owlish glasses and using a hard, nasal voice and New York accent, Murray’s Aloysius is dour, plain, and pinched. You completely believe that the pupils of St. Nicholas find her utterly terrifying, and yet you see the intelligence, strength, and discipline that have enabled her to rise to the highest possible position in her world.
The Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchy based on a scale of “greater thans.”
God > Humankind
Men > Women
Clergy > Laity
In the Roman church women cannot be clergy, therefore they are all laity, even those in religious orders. In addition, nuns take a vow of obedience, which is interpreted as obedience to the earthly hierarchy as much as it is obedience to God. Sister Aloysius cannot make a move without the permission of men. The men directly superior to her are the parish priests: the elderly (and unseen) Monsignor Benedict...and Father Flynn.
Galenus does good work as the young and impressionable Sister James. She clearly conveys this young woman’s enthusiasm for teaching and her quandary as to whether the rigid educational standards of the past, as symbolized by Sister Aloyisius, or the looser and friendly modern methods, symbolized by Father Flynn, are right for her. Her vocational journey is separate from the central mystery of the play, and, had Shanley decided to make “Doubt” a longer work, is one that might fruitfully have been explored in more depth.
In her one scene Smith struggles to make Mrs. Muller a three dimensional character. In the secular hierarchy of 1964
White > Black
Straight > Gay
Mrs. Muller perceives her son to be both black and gay, (although considering he is only 12 I think she might be jumping the gun a bit on the latter) and therefore destined to suffer at the hands of bigots throughout his life. If Father Flynn’s attentions boost his self-esteem and make him happy, as they appear to do, then she chooses to ignore any less savory aspects of their relationship.
Smith is an inexperienced actress in a small role, but when you have but four characters and a story told in under two hours, everyone and everything counts. Smith tried hard and looked adorable in her Jackie Kennedy suit and pill box hat, but I longed for a more experienced actress in this surprising and difficult role.
A large crew is credited with set construction, but no one claims the credit for designing the set, which, though Spartan, functions well, dividing a small stage into several distinct places – the principal’s office, the pulpit of the church, the school gym, and the garden. This flexibility is enhanced by Sid Silney and Robert Dumais’ lighting. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church has loaned some vestments and hangings for the lectern to give the set an authentic ecclesiastical feel.
This is Town Players first production at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2 in the VFW Hall, and they have FINALLY found a performance space that fits after a Goldilocks-style odyssey through venues too big and too small. BSC has publicly stated its intention to find a variety of renters for its theatres, and supporting the 88-year-old community theatre is an excellent partnership for both entities.
What I worry about is the sudden annexing by Town Players of so many stalwarts of the Ghent Playhouse (Gulliver, Murray, and Murphy are all long-time staples of that Columbia County community theatre.) It is no secret that Town Players has hit a rough patch, and Ghent is just emerging from one. While Pittsfield has supported Town Players for nearly ninety years and has happily embraced both the newly arrived Barrington Stage and the newly refurbished Colonial, the community’s interest in Community Theatre seems to be waning, and I am not at all sure that going across state lines to drain talent and resources from another community group is the answer. I worry we are going to end up with two weak companies where at least one strong one would be preferable.
The Town Players of Pittsfield production of Doubt will be presented on April 17, 18, 24 & 25 at 8 p.m. and April 19 at 2 p.m. at Barrington Stage Company's Stage 2, at the VFW Hall, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, MA. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and iis suitable for ages 13 and up.
Tickets are $15 for reserved seating, with $12 tickets available for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. To make a reservation, please call The Town Players at (413) 443-9279 or email your request to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about this production, upcoming production or information on how to become a part of The Town Players, please visit the website at www.townplayers.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009