I can recall, when John Patrick Shanley's play "Doubt: A Parable," first appeared on Broadway in 2005, how critics focused on the issue that, at least on the surface, appears to be the heart of the play--the scandal of Catholic priests abusing young boys.
That's the unspoken evil that Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Sherrionne Brown) is willing to risk everything to combat, but in fact, is only incidental. This isn't a play about crusading nuns fighting to expose a renegade priest in the Bronx in 1964. It's a play about...well, doubt.
It's the doubt Sister James (Karina Ferry) harbors toward Sister Aloysius' drill sergeant philosophy of teaching. It's the doubt Father Flynn (Michael Leicht) explores as he delivers his sermon to the congregation of the fictitious St. Nicholas Church--does doubt provide us a bond "as strong as certainty" as he asserts? It's the doubts that plague Sister Aloysius' regards her own understanding of the world beyond the walls of the school she presides. It's the doubt Mrs. Muller (Nicole Mullins) feels toward Sr. Aloysius--is it more important to her to ruin the priest or help her son? And it's the doubt that Shanley seeks to instill in the audience as to who is in the right in this play...is Father Flynn guilty? Is Sister Aloyisius wrong in her crusade to "bring down" Father Flynn based on nothing more than her belief?
And note that Shanley titled his play not simply "Doubt," but "Doubt: A Parable"--a parable being a brief tale designed to make an ethical or moral point, as in the parables told by Jesus in the New Testament. Parables are designed to make us think, question, debate, and in the process, to learn and garner wisdom.
Father Flynn prefers parables to reality, noting "The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion." Father Flynn preaches parables in a play that is a parable itself. And here there is irony, as a parable about doubt serves only to offer no clear conclusion, for that is the very nature of doubt. And in yet another layer of irony, Shanley presents his parable using characters religious--people of faith...who are in the business of believing without empirical evidence... for whom the spectre of doubt, in the hearts of those they seek to comfort and convert, and in themselves, haunts them daily.
It's a wonderfully written, succinct (90 minutes without intermission) and elegant play, sprinkled with moments of humor (Sr. Aloysius' ability to spy heresy in "Frosty the Snowman" and moral decadence in ballpoint pens), winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. The only question is, how effective and entertaining is the Spotlighters' interpretation? Happily, right on target, have no doubt.
Spotlighter staples Leicht, Brown and Ferry, and Mullins as Mrs. Muller deliver strong, engaging performances. Leicht is commanding as a priest who seems sincere in his desire to modernize the Church, to be part of the congregation rather than above it. His character never stays at the pulpit, but walks down to the stage as if to be closer to his flock. Ferry is the right combination of sweet innocence but passionate conviction. Brown's Aloysius could easily become a "one note wonder," a stereotypical "Catholic school nun from Hell," but makes her much more than that, as a woman torn in many directions, firm as a rock at one moment but faltering the next, as in her exchange with Mrs. Muller. Mullins' Muller is Motherhood personified...for her, it all begins and ends with what is best for her son, a fierceness seen in her voice, her facial expressions, her body language--she's as much a stalwart as Sr. Aloysius.
The Spotlighters does an admirable job in creating multiple venues-- the school principal's office, a church pulpit, a courtyard--in their diminutive space. The small details, like an "old school" pencil sharpener, the hanging portraits of Pope John XXIII and Holy Mother Seton, even the potted plants not yet ready to bloom, are all spot on.
"Doubt: A Parable" continues its run at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, May 15, 20-21, 27-29, June 3-5 and June 9-12, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and $16 for students. For more information, call 410-752-1225 or visit www.spotlighters.org.