Playwright John Patrick Shanley focuses on the latter vice in his taut and terrific play Doubt, which won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005. A riveting, mind-bending account of a nun who accuses a priest of indiscretion, Shanley's drama is making its regional premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Anchored by the precise, unrelenting direction of Wendy C. Goldberg and enlivened by the feverish acting of a prodigious cast, this accomplished production makes a solid case for the play's position as an American classic.
Shanley transports us back to the fall of 1964, where, in a spartan Bronx church school, clerical sexual abuse has yet to become a topical issue. Roles and hierarchies are deeply ingrained, so when Sister Aloysius, the cranky headmaster, accuses a well-loved priest of engaging in inappropriate behavior with a male student, she becomes involved in - and consumed by - a tricky game of verbal and ethical gymnastics. The student, it turns out, is not only young, but also the school's sole black pupil, a fraught situation that catalyzes Sister Aloysius's behavior: she desperately, even obsessively, undertakes actions that she believes will protect the student, the school, the church and herself.
Shanley dips his pen into a subject that swirls with controversy, but what lifts Doubt above other "issue" plays is its earnest simplicity. In a lean progression of acute scenes, he carefully carves out four fascinating characters with winding, intersecting paths. Subtitled "A Parable," Doubt is exactly that - a story that teaches a lesson, and one that bends, twists and astonishes.
Brían F. O'Byrne and Cherry Jones drew much acclaim and many awards as the sparring priest and nun on Broadway; in this production, Ted Deasy and Caitlin O'Connell form their own memorable incarnations of these complicated characters. With his athletic frame, carefully combed red hair and affable Bronx accent, it's hard to mistrust Deasy's Father Flynn. He delivers his homegrown sermons with humility and humor, but Deasy also uses his natural flush and physical quickness to artfully reveal the priest's anxiety over Sister Aloysius' accusations.
O'Connell matches him word for word throughout their terse verbal battles, and she uses a brittle, starched voice to convey the bleakness of Sister Aloysius' withered spirit. Devout and dutiful, her harsh allegiance to the rules rubs raw against the hope and innocence of one of the younger teachers, Sister James. Skeptical of her love of history, Aloysius admonishes James to curb her delight. "Boys are made of gravel, soot and tarpaper," she proclaims, cautioning the younger woman, "Innocence is a form of laziness."
This naïveté haunts Sister James when the older nun recruits her to spy on Father Flynn. The bright and cheerful James can't conceive of such moral depravity, but Aloysius yanks her into the situation, leaving James to doubt her own instincts as well as the essence of her worldview. In one of the most memorable scenes, Aloysius and the uneasy James confront Flynn in a clumsy interrogation that could almost be called "good nun, bad nun." Makela Spielman gives Sister James a winning combination of grace and glee - a sweet sparrow caught in a gnarly thicket, she finds fresh humor and insight in this pivotal role.
When the young boy's mother finally arrives at the school to speak to Sister Aloysius, resolution appears within reach. But as the determinedly pious Mrs. Muller, Joy Hooper's understated performance drops the show's energy a notch. Although her character makes some surprisingly passive decisions, Hooper's tentative approach lacks the resolve that would communicate the complicated resolve of a woman determined to do what is best for her son, no matter what the church might have to say about it.
To create a persuasive physical landscape to match the moral terrain, Todd Rosenthal's exquisite set captures the details of the well-trod paths of the school, from the weathered sidewalks to the crumbling bricks. Here, religious iconography brushes up against danger: a Virgin Mary statue stands just beyond prohibitively pointed fence posts, and barbed wire curls near warmly glowing windows. This ominous atmosphere also pervades Ryan Rumery's sumptuous score, which layers innocuous ambient church sounds (bells, children singing and praying) over the brooding, aching wails of stringed instruments.
This jarring counterpoint drives the rhythms of Doubt, which races by and pulls you along for the unsteadying ride. "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty," announces Father Flynn in his opening sermon, and one thing is clear: the forces that bind audiences so securely to the hypnotic rhythms of Doubt show no signs of uncertainty.
Doubt continues at Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park through April 4, 2008. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888 or visit www.cincyplay.com/.