The year is 1964. The Catholic Church works under the presumption that there is an appearance of impropriety in a priest and nun being alone together, but the priest can be alone with a boy and nobody raises an eyebrow.
Except the nun.
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is the story of one such nun. Possessed of strong suspicions that a young priest is engaging in a sexual relationship with a student at the parish school, Sister Aloysius finds herself trapped in a Church hierarchy that requires her to report her suspicions only to a Church official, who will take no action. Refusing to leave the child unprotected, Sister Aloysius confronts the priest.
The resulting play is something like Mamet’s Oleanna in that a man tries to defend his conduct toward a student as innocent against accusations of impropriety which threaten his job and reputation. But, unlike Oleanna, Doubt isn’t about differing interpretations of known conduct, it’s about whether something horrible actually happened. As such, it’s a much more straightforward play. Either Father Flynn molested the boy or he didn’t. If he did, either he’ll get away with it or he won’t. If he didn’t, either Sister Aloysius will ruin his life or she won’t. There’s not much more to it than that.
Shanley’s script is commendable for how well it walks the line of suspicion. Once the specter of impropriety has been raised, we look at everything Father Flynn does with a skeptical eye. Father Flynn teaches a basketball class how to shoot free throws, and he suggests the boys shake their hips as part of a relaxation routine. And all of a sudden we wonder, are we watching a caring priest help a group of neighborhood boys improve their fouls shots or is this a sexual predator shaking his pelvis in front of his young victims? The play is full of moments like that. Father Flynn’s conduct - and his responses to Sister Aloysius - are full of ambiguity. They could be completely innocent, but once we approach them with the doubt of the play’s title, they can support a different conclusion entirely.
The script is also notable for a scene near the end of the play in which Sister Aloysius speaks with the mother of the boy in question. The mother’s reactions to the uncomfortable suggestions of Sister Aloysius are anything but stereotypical, and her presence in the play momentarily elevates it beyond the standard did-he-do-it into thought-provoking territory.
The Pasadena Playhouse production, under Claudia Weill’s direction, feels a little off. Linda Hunt plays Sister Aloysius as an almost-doddering old nun. She speaks extremely slowly - you can hear the breaks between syllables - and, although the script suggests she is a terror to everyone at the school, she does not come off as controlling at all. While it is possible to envision Sister Aloysius as an old, out-of-her-game woman who stubbornly sticks to her belief in Father Flynn’s guilt, it doesn’t fit well with Shanley’s script, which requires her to be the sort of hard, domineering woman that can easily reduce a young colleague to tears.
Jonathan Cake isn’t quite right as Father Flynn, either. He doesn’t give Father Flynn the necessary anger - either of righteous indignation or faked indignation - that should come in response to Sister Aloysius. And both Hunt and Cake have issues with stilted dialogue; they sometimes sound as though they are just throwing their lines at each other, rather than having conversations. Mandy Freund, as a young nun who is pretty much only in the play for the other two to have someone to talk to, comes off as the most realistic in her speech. And everyone has trouble hanging on to their Bronx accents.
There’s no question that there is some good playwriting at work in Doubt, but this misdirected production is not the best airing it could get.
Doubt runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through April 10, 2005. For more information, visit www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Pasadena Playhouse -- Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla White, Executive Director -- proudly presents Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. Scenic design Gary L. Wissmann; Costume Design Alex Jaeger; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Original Music and Sound Design Steven Cahill; Casting Richard Hicks, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager Anna Belle Gilbert; Stage Manager Michelle Blair. Directed by Claudia Weill.