Asaad Kelada has directed a very accomplished and effective version of John Patrick Shanley’s play about a crisis within a Catholic middle school circa 1964. William Dennis Hurley is the charismatic Father Brendan Flynn, and Victoria Tennant is his implacable nemesis, Sister Aloysius Beauvier. The supporting roles in this drama are crucial, and Kirsten Kollender (as Sister James) and Judith Scott (as Mrs. Muller) both deliver outstanding performances. For a play about lack of certainty, the sense of dramatic purpose necessary to a unified result on stage is amply present. What’s left is a great opportunity to look again at one of the most acclaimed dramas of the decade.
The action takes place in a long single act, with the location shifting between the office of Sister Aloysius, principal of the middle school, and the garden that separates her building from the parish rectory where Father Flynn lives and holds impromptu talks with the boys. In the wake of the massive sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the Catholic Church, Shanley has created a kind of Rorschach blot designed to draw out unconscious attitudes and preconceived ideas about the issue.
In the opening scene, Sister Aloysius browbeats her young eighth-grade teacher, Sister James, to the point where it seems as though it will be difficult for the senior nun ever to claim any audience sympathy. When the implication surfaces that there might be something improper about Father Flynn’s relations with one of the young boys, the clouds of Sister Aloysius’s crossness part to reveal the steely nerve that comes to define her character.
Hurley’s Father Flynn oscillates between the righteous indignation of the falsely accused and the vociferous aggression of one who enjoys a position that provides an unfair advantage. The gimmick of Doubt is that the question of Father Flynn’s guilt is never answered. While Shanley has built a marvelous vehicle for actors-the play is full of brilliant, tense bits of business, like the awkward moment when Father Flynn orders his tea with three sugars-there is still the lingering sense that an issue of such enormity as the systematic cover-up of pedophilia by the church deserves something more conclusive than a “design your own ending” cop-out. The paradox of the play’s open-endedness is that some of the moral impact of its central characters’ struggle is lost.