Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Set in 1964, the story takes place at a Catholic school in the Bronx. The principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Diane Ciesla), has some reservations about a certain instructor, Father Brendan Flynn (David Schmittou). While reprimanding another teacher, Sister James (Deanna Gibson), Sister Aloysius brings up her suspicions about Father Flynn. Sister James inadvertently talks about a certain incident involving Donald Muller, the school's only black student. She says that Muller became withdrawn in her class after having words with Father Flynn, and how he had alcohol on his breath. Sister Aloysius becomes engaged and launches a full investigation into Father Flynn's character.
Sister Aloysius coaxes Sister James to bring Father Flynn to her office, so he can be subtly confronted. After throwing down the gauntlet, Sister Aloysius, determined to get to the truth, gets in touch with Donald's mother (Natasha A. Williams), who has her own intentions in the matter.
As a Bronx native, John Patrick Shanley knows these people well. He laces them with the thickness of the dialect, giving off funny moments, especially in the dialogue. As the young nun, Sister James wants to connect with the students so they can have a friend to lean on. Father Flynn wants to make sure that the boys can become men and take care of their responsibilities. As the strict nun, Sister Aloysius still lives with her strict ideals that children should be educated without a smile.
But when we think this is going to be another one of those laugh riots, the speculations and suspicions become all too real. In her relentless quest to do what's right, Sister Aloysius will destroy a man of the cloth in order to "outshine the fox and cleverness." As the accusations get louder, Sister Aloysius goes headstrong against Father Flynn in their final confrontation. Doubt concludes that "in the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God, but there is a price." Who pays the price is up for debate, and that's what Shanley wants audiences to discuss as they leave the theater.
Founding artistic director Allen Cornell helms a 90-minute firecracker that never slows down, which is a good thing. Cornell picked a great leading man in David Schmittou as Father Flynn. When in sermon, Schmittou has a commanding voice that could convert the slightest non-believer. His Father Flynn is a teacher who doesn't have the slightest dark motive in his soul; he just wants to do God's work.
Deanna Gibson is all ticks and twitches as the bewildered Sister James, without coming off as cute. Gibson uses the Bronx dialect to her advantage by portraying Sister James as an understanding angel's advocate, but at the end, she empowers James with a mind of her own.
As Mrs. Muller, Natasha Williams gives a restraining, non-showy portrayal of a mother willing to do anything for her son. Even if the accusations are true, Mrs. Muller is willing to hold off until her son gets out in June, going to college on a basketball scholarship. Williams gives a heartbreaking performance, as Mrs. Muller tries to convince the tough principal to open her eyes and be on her side for once.
Diane Ciesla has the difficult task of not portraying Sister Aloysius as the ultimate supervillain - a character willing to destroy everything in her path to get what she wants. The audience needs to believe that deep down inside, this nun is dedicated to discovering the truth behind the relationship between student and teacher, no matter how unreasonable she becomes. Unfortunately, Ciesla may have the look of a ruler-wielding mother superior, square jaw intact, but her performance comes off dubious at best: a cross between Judge Judy and Joy Behar. It's only toward the final showdown between the principal and teacher that she comes in with true conviction.
Director Cornell also designed the set, splitting it into three sides: the pulpit where Father Flynn sermonizes to parishioners and his basketball team, Sister Aloysius' office, and the school's garden. A credible designer, Cornell gives the production a certain ambience that has the look of 1964, but still appears timeless. Elizabeth Van Deusen's costume design is a sight to behold, especially Father Flynn's preacher garb in its colorful, glorious display when he gives his messages. And slight kudos to Karl Kern's sound design, especially his distorted take on Frosty the Snowman.
John Patrick Shanley has created the ultimate conversational piece in Doubt. It earned its stripes on the Pulitzer Prize list, and people will be talking about it for years to come. Allen Cornell wrote in his program notes that he has been looking forward to this play for quite some time. Despite a few drawbacks, most of it has paid off.
Doubt is part of the Riverside 2 programming and will be in their Waxlax Stage until March 23rd . The theatre is located at 3250 Riverside Park Drive in Vero Beach. For more information, call the box office at 772-231-6990 or visit www.riversidetheatre.com.
Riverside Theatre - Doubt
Featuring Diane Ciesla, Deanne Gibson, David Schmittou and Natasha A. Williams
Lighting Design: Michael Ramey
-- Kevin Johnson