A doubt-less ‘Doubt’ misses the point altogether
“What do you do when you aren’t sure?” asks Father Flynn at the opening of “Doubt: A Parable.”
He’s giving a sermon about doubt to a congregation that recently experienced the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But you get the feeling he’s talking about personal struggles, too.
The sermon sets the tone for the rest of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Set in 1964 in a Bronx parochial school, the story revolves around the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius (Megan McCombs) who suspects Father Flynn (Dan Lamey) is “interfering” with Donald Muller, the school’s first black student. She tries to get Sister James (Devan McGaughey), a young, naïve nun teaching at the school, and the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Sonya McCarter), to assist her in getting the priest removed from the parish.
John Patrick Shanley’s play not only received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005, but also the Tony Award for Best Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding New Play and the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play.
And they were all well deserved.
The play’s genius is that, when performed correctly, it causes the playgoer to experience doubt. You flip-flop back and forth: Is Father Flynn guilty or innocent? Is Sister Aloysius on a witch hunt, or is she protecting a student?
Unfortunately, the current production at the Sugden Community Theatre, which plays through Feb. 25, lacks nuance. Under John McKerrow’s direction, the play is reduced to a story about a child-molesting priest.
In his Director’s Notes, Mr. McKerrow shares that, “The play and the concept of ‘Doubt’ hit home personally because I served as an altar boy for seven years as a child in the ’60s and ’70s. The world that I felt was simple and innocent then was exposed to be anything but, when two priests with whom I had served with were indicted for sexual abuse — as part of the incredible revelations that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years… Sister Aloysius is a woman who is ahead of her time in recognizing a problem and the need to act.”
The way “Doubt” played on Broadway (and also at the Florida Repertory Theatre’s production), it was impossible to know for certain whether Father Flynn is guilty. It’s possible he’s gay, but that does not necessarily mean he’s a pedophile and has molested the boy.
The priest and the nun also represent two diametrically opposed approaches to the church. Sister Aloysius represents the old tradition: She doesn’t want the students to use ballpoint pens, she thinks Frosty the Snowman “espouses a pagan belief in magic,” and she believes students should be scared of nuns and priests.
Father Flynn represents a more progressive view, believing priests and nuns should be friendly and approachable. And he doesn’t see anything wrong with including a rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” in the school’s Christmas pageant.
“Doubt: A Parable” is wonderfully layered. It’s not only about a priest who’s a possible pedophile, but about gender inequality in the church, church hierarchy, race relations in the era of the Civil Rights movement and traditional vs. progressive views in the church.
Mr. Shanley’s script causes us to not only experience but to examine the very nature of doubt: Why do we believe what we believe? How can we know for certain? Can we know for certain? What do we do with our doubts?
Ms. McCombs gives an incredibly powerful performance as Sister Aloysius, working herself into a frenzy about Father Flynn. She views the world through flinty eyes, always sure that someone is up to no good. She’s severe, made of stone through and through.
Ms. McCombs is not seen often enough onstage at the Sugden, and I’d gladly attend any play in which she appears. Her portrayal of Sister Aloysius is tremendous. However, she’s hampered somewhat by Mr. McKerrow’s direction.
The production would have been stronger, too, if she were paired with an actor equal to her talent.
While Rev. Lamey, who in real life is an assistant pastor in Naples, delivers the play’s sermons well, he’s not as skilled when playing a priest who may or may not be gay, and may or may not be a pedophile. He presents an unfortunate false jollity much of the time, and his demeanor and mature age add extra layers of creepiness.
If we were able to feel more empathy toward his character, this would have been a more emotionally fulfilling production.
Ms. McGaughey, making her debut with The Naples Players, is perfect in her role as Sister James: innocent and naïve. And Ms. McCarter, in a small but highly effective role as Donald’s mother, walks that fine line between wanting to protect her son while also respecting those who work in the church. She brings a layer of complexity to this production. As a black woman living in the 1960s, her character knows all about having to make compromises and making the best in a world that doesn’t even want to acknowledge her.
Staging this play in the Tobye Studio presents challenges; at times, some of the audience could only see the actors’ backs during key scenes. And not only did lighting and set designer Jeff Weiss have to create three separate and distinct environments in that small space, but he had to do it for an audience that wraps around the stage three quarters of the way. So he went with a minimum of props and effective use of lighting.
The faux stained glass picture behind the pulpit is an especially clever touch; it’s an image of Jesus appearing to the disciple Thomas — known as Doubting Thomas — after His resurrection. It’s a very intimate image; Jesus has his robe open, and Thomas is touching the wound in His side. (Thomas had declared he needed definite proof that he could see and touch, before he could believe.)
Mr. McKerrow has also added an intermission to this 90-minute play, which is usually presented in one act, without interruption. I’m not sure why he made this decision, as it breaks the play’s momentum.
Child-raping priests are a very real and despicable reality, exacerbated by the fact that their crimes are covered up and ignored by the church hierarchy. But that isn’t necessarily what “Doubt” is about.
This production has a moving performance by Ms. McCombs, but unfortunately, the play lacks the complexities and layers that would have toyed with the audience’s emotions and made them feel as if they were standing on constantly shifting sand.
This “Doubt” has too many certainties and not enough doubt. ¦
>> When: Through Feb. 25
>> Where: The Tobye Studio of the Sugden
Community Theatre, Naples
>> Cost: $25
>> Info: 263-7990 or www.naplesplayers.org