Monday, June 22, 2009

Review of Doubt at People's Light

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

I’ll admit that when I first saw John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt a few years ago, I didn’t care for it very much.

Sure his play had won the Tony and Pulitzer Prize for Best New Play, and the touring production I watched starred none other than Cherry Jones (who also won the Tony for Best Actress in the Broadway staging). At the time, I found plenty to dislike in his powerful melodrama about a foreign and corruptin institution, presented through the scrim of modern sensibilities.

But Peoples’ Light and Theatre Company’s current production gave me a whole new level of respect for the play. And for that, I have only Ceal Phelan to thank.

Set at St. Nicholas’ Catholic school in 1964, “Doubt” begins as a conflict over teaching styles, with the school’s principal Sister Aloysius (Phelan) condescendingly warning the fresh-faced (and quite naïve) Sister James (Elizabeth Webster Duke) that “every easy choice hides within its consequences tomorrow.” However, after haranguing James for ten minutes, Aloysius quickly shifts to her real concern—the well being of Donald Muller, their first Negro student—who has fallen into the protective care of Father Flynn (Pete Pryor), a pastor transferred through three parishes in five years. Aloysius’ worry still persists today (witness the recent scandals of the schools in Ireland), that Father Flynn’s interests in becoming Donald’s protector hide something far more sinister.

While Sister James struggles to regain her peace of mind, doubt, suspicion, and gossip dominate the play from here. Flynn shows signs of guilt—with Pryor’s voice cracking on certain phrases—but he credibly defends himself, winning over James, and threatening Aloysius’ future. When the boy’s mother (Melanye Finister as Mrs. Muller) appears, she partially acquiesces to the alleged abuse. Already thinking her twelve year old son is gay, she only wants him to make it to June, so he can use this private-school education as a springboard to better opportunities in the highly competitive New York school system. As for the truth of the accusations, it escapes like so many feathers fluttering on the wind.

David Mamet once wrote (I’m paraphrasing) that in a good script, the language by itself should produce so much tension that the actors could just sit in chairs on the stage and entrance the audience with a reading. David Bradley’s direction of Shanley’s play seems to have taken this phrase to heart. Except in the interludes between scenes, the actors take little advantage of the staging’s wide courtyard, and everyone delivers their lines while either standing or sitting immobile, the two nuns speaking nearly all of their dialogue with their arms held tight at their sides.

As a result, Pryor appears suitably sympathetic and engaging just in delivery, but his lack of emoting can’t capture the charisma of a man whose congregation praises his sermons, and whose schoolboys look to him as a role model. More importantly, after seeing what Pryor has conveyed in much simpler roles, I wish he had brought more depth to his Father Flynn. Finister and Duke suffer similar problems; Duke’s facial expressions transmit her wracked conscious, but I would expect that a teacher warned about “being a performer for her class” would shape the language a bit more with her hands and body.

Ultimately, only Phelan’s performance truly benefits from Bradley’s directorial choices. Her measured manner of speaking turns the simple statements that “satisfaction is a vice” and “innocence is a form of laziness” into dictums worthy of Aristotle. Shanley’s script sets her up as the hated prison warden who stands between order and ruin, but while Phelan’s a block of ice, her fascinating absence of emotion moved me to profound admiration for a character that would “go outside the church even if I am damned to hell.”

Finally, I felt the moral force of this play, something helped along immensely by the Yoshi Tanokura’s set that not only frames the entire space, but also puts these four characters in an imprisoning cell where their conflicting emotions and stories confront them at every turn.

In trying to do good, Aloysius walked away from God. Still in His service, she may have even committed evil. And like the best tragedies, the battle is not fought between obvious good and clear evil, but between forces each bent on their own version of what’s right. And for 80 minutes at People’s Light, Doubt pulverizes any complacency of thought or easy emotion.

People’s Light and Theatre presents John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Directed by David Bradley, runs until June 28.

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