Those who know John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt only through the clumsy film adaptation will have, well, second thoughts about seeing it on stage. But it pays to have faith in Rubicon Theatre Company. This taut, compelling production of Shanley’s thought-provoking 2004 play is a reminder of how great drama can help us face the maddening ambiguities of life. Befitting its title, the work provides no definitive answers, but its central issue—the pros and cons of strong-willed self-assurance—is explored with deep empathy and crystalline clarity.
Those two qualities are embodied in the characters of Sister Aloysius (Robin Pearson Rose), principal of a Catholic elementary school in New York City, and Sister James (Lauren Patten), a young, naïve eighth-grade teacher. The year is 1964. Society, like the Church, is moving in a more liberal direction, a direction which Sister Aloysius, the no-nonsense, old-school nun, doesn’t like one bit. In contrast, the popular parish priest, Father Flynn (Joseph Fuqua), embraces the new openness. An eloquent sermonizer with an approachable, down-to-earth demeanor, he takes a special interest in the school’s only black student, inviting him to the rectory for counseling and conversation.
But are his motives really pure? Sister Aloysius has strong doubts. Burdened by her lack of authority in a patriarchal institution, she tries to trap Father Flynn into confessing to sins she is sure he has committed. Their highly charged back-and-forth turns into a proxy debate about morality (rigid vs. relaxed), compassion (the apex of Godliness, or a means of retaining a comforting sense of innocence?) and, above all, the dangers of certainty.
Jenny Sullivan’s production is more static than it needs to be: Shouldn’t Sister Aloysius be circling her prey rather than standing still as a statue for much of the play? Alan Muraoka’s set is functional at best. But the actors, including Collette Porteous as the frightened but pragmatic mother of the boy in question, do excellent work. Fuqua adopts regular-guy body language and a working-class New York accent (“You tell me, Sistuh”) suggesting he grew up in or near the neighborhood they serve. Pearson Rose manages to convey firmness and conviction while never turning into a strict-nun caricature, and her transformation in the final scene is stunning. See it, and allow plenty of time for discussion afterward; Doubt leaves your head buzzing.