If you are one who prefers your shows have a neat and tidy ending with no loose ends, Ocean State Theatre’s current offering, Doubt: A Parable, may not be for you. But if you are a fan of compelling, thought-provoking drama, then this show is definitely for you.
Set during the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement and with President Kennedy’s assassination in the backdrop, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play explores allegations of an inappropriate relationship between a priest/basketball coach at a Catholic school in the Bronx and the school’s first black student.
Much of the action centers around the school’s stern principal Sister Aloysius and her suspicions of the parish’s charismatic and progressive thinking priest Father Flynn; the two engage in several epic battles with the Truth remaining forever in Doubt.
The play opens with Father Flynn delivering another one of his “poetic” sermons with the subject being, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” With the assassination of President Kennedy still fresh on the minds of his parishioners, the priest refers to this as a time when they all need to come together. And while recent events may cause them to feel some doubt, they need not worry because “doubt can be a bond.” Yet, this sermon, as do others, parallels events throughout the play. Is this sermon an inspired message to churchgoers, or is it a plea for help from Father Flynn regarding his own failings?
Sister Aloysius’ motives also remain unclear, as evidenced by her exchanges with the young and enthusiastic Sister James regarding her teaching techniques. Her position is established early in the play when referring to students taking art class as a “waste of time.” She then goes on to berate those who use ball point pens, instead of the traditional fountain pens, as having the penmanship of monkeys. All of which begs the question, does Sister Aloysius really believe that Father Flynn is involved in an inappropriate relationship or does she view his progressivism as a threat to her way of running the school?
As suspicion grows, Sister James and Father Flynn form a bond based on similar progressive ideas about education. She later confesses to him that Sister Aloysius has “taken away my love of teaching.” During this same conversation in the school’s garden, Father Flynn convinces her of his innocence, just as a crow, a bird often associated with trickery and mistrust, can be heard cawing in the distance: “Oh be quiet,” he shouts.
Later, in another emotional sermon, Father Flynn asks “Is gossip a sin?” a powerful moment in the play with the priest directly challenging the principal’s morality and motives. Father Flynn has many Othello-like “Reputation, Reputation, Reputation,” moments throughout the play. Just as Iago’s accusations threatened the reputation of King Othello and his order, Sister Aloysius’ charges similarly challenge Father Flynn’s good name and the church’s patriarchal hierarchy: “You answer to us,” he reminds her during a very heated exchange.
Sister Aloysius’ efforts to remove Father Flynn are complicated further following a stunning exchange between her and the alleged victim’s mother who seems willing to overlook the suspected abuse. She believes the school, and Father Flynn, offer her son the best chance of graduating and attending a good high school. She also suspects that her son is “that way” and appreciates that Father Flynn is “nice to my son.” She later admonishes Sister Aloysius, “You’ve got some kind of righteous cause with this priest, but don’t drag my son into it.”
The deal is ultimately sealed – or is it – after Father Flynn agrees to transfer to another parish. Yet, Sister Aloysius’ apparent victory will forever be shrouded in doubt following a shocking confession of her own.
Donna Sorbello (Sister Aloysius) does a fine job as the dogmatic principal. Her cold stares (a look I remember well from my days of attending Catholic schools) are enough to send chills up your spine.
Though it took Greg London (Father Flynn) a while to amp his anger (I am not sure others would have been as cool as he was initially), he is at his best when backed into corner, projecting a very real sense of anger and desperation.
Lovely Hoffman, as the mother of the suspected abuse victim, also injects a compelling human element by not overdoing it. One is simultaneously stunned by her indifference and understanding of her dilemma.
Caitlin Davies (Sister James) delivers the most refreshing performance as the enthusiastic and idealistic young teacher. She brings an infectious optimism to the play. While the play revolves around the epic battles between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, Davies gives the audience a truly redeeming character to cheer for.
OSTC set designers also deserve a hand for transforming the stage into a beautiful church/school. Sitting beneath cathedral ceilings, an elevated pulpit stands before a stained-glass window. Large non-descript period pieces – an oversized wooden desk and large wooden chairs – make up Sister Aloysius’ office, furnishings that match her icy demeanor. Opposite the pulpit, a garden serves as a symbolic refuge of sorts where the characters seem to drop their defenses.
OSTC’s “Doubt: A Parable,” runs through November 20 in the company’s state-of-the-art theater located on Jefferson Boulevard. For tickets or more information visit: oceanstatetheatre.org.