Doubt as a philosophical concept has a bad reputation in traditional religion, and its advocates have tended to be heretics and apostates. Voltaire, one of history’s most famous agnostics, said, “Doubt is disagreeable but certainty is ridiculous.” Rarely has that aphorism been more eloquently expressed than in John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt: A Parable, a sparse and intense period piece set in a Catholic grade school in the Bronx of 1964. It is an indisputably great play, having won just about every possible major accolade in drama, including the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award.
Using only four characters, the play almost entirely consists of a series of dialogues between two of them at a time with the particular exception of an opening monologue on the subject of doubt as an element of faith. Sister Aloysius (Linda Monchik) is the universally feared school principal, carefully suspicious of everyone and everything, including those who keep their fingernails too long or adopt the modern ballpoint pen, but her cynicism is grounded in a worldview that the best way to protect her beloved pupils from a cold and unfeeling society is to make sure that rules are respected and followed. Father Flynn (Michael Zola), who delivers that opening monologue about doubt, is a newly assigned priest who is her polar opposite, seeing the remedy for a cold and unfeeling society as being a friend to the pupils. Sister James (Lauren Faith Odenwalder) is a young and idealistic teacher who observes interactions between Father Flynn and a 10-year-old boy that may or not hint at sexual impropriety, but whose naivety is shaken by the inability to unimagine what the mind has once imagined. The mother of the boy (Tammy Brown) sees herself as trapped in a situation where there are no good options and whose love for her son, although real, is coldly pragmatic at the expense of all else.
The cast is very solid and Monchik as Sister Aloysius is outstanding in a role that relies entirely on acting skill to make the character sympathetic, a true challenge to use pacing, manner, and expression to convey internal anguish motivated by the conviction that people can be gravely harmed by being insufficiently suspicious. Inexpertly handled, the character risks becoming a cartoonish parody, but her motive is expressed in one of her most quoted lines from the play: “When you take a step to address wrong-doing, you are taking a step away from God, but in His service.” Zola as Father Flynn is effectively physical and imposing whether teaching basketball or defending himself in argument, able to command respect. Odenwalder as Sister James alternates between bouncy innocence and despairing loss of that innocence, unable to deny possibilities that force her to reconsider her trust in anyone. Brown as the boy’s mother is the embodiment of 1960s scrupulous decorum, down to her lady’s gloves and Jackie-O style pillbox hat, in contrast to what she discloses to us of her personal circumstances.
Of course, we know that this play written in 2005 four decades after its setting in 1964 is informed by allegations of child sexual abuse by priests that came to be widely reported in the intervening period, but that is not its subject. Rather, it is the epistemological question about how we can really know anything, and to what extent imperfect or incomplete knowledge morally obligates us to either take or not take action, and who among us are worthy of trust. Sometimes the consequences of doing the wrong thing will be horrific, but so will be the consequences of doing nothing.
One of Doubt‘s greatest accomplishment as a dramatic work is that audience members tend to identify with and project themselves onto whichever of the four characters most closely shares their own preconceptions and worldview. Director Ed Rondeau gets this perfectly, having made something of a small specialty of taut psychological conflicts, including his superb Equus, also with The Players in 2011. This is the sort of play that will cause enthusiastic and animated disagreements among friends who see it together. No matter which character an audience member makes a subconscious choice to follow, their perceptions will be subjected to aggressive questioning by the others, inevitably leaving doubt.
Doubt: A Parable is performed by The Players at the Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, Providence, on Fri, Oct 18 (8:00pm), Sat, Oct 19 (8:00pm), and Sun, Oct 20 (2:00pm). For tickets or information, telephone 401-273-0590, e-mail email@example.com, or visit playersri.org/.