Doubt By John Patrick Shanley, Directed by Warner Shook, through October 21st, Seattle REP.
Last year was rocky for the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It was a changeover between old and new artistic directors. A mix of old farewells and new intentions. A mish-mash of styles and subjects. A building year. In baseball terms, it was the equivalent of the last three Mariners seasons - entertaining but in the end not leaving you with a lot to think about.
Not this time. The REP starts its season swinging for the bleachers with a tough, excellent, thoughtful, intelligent play. Doubt is set in a parochial school in Boston in the mid-sixties (removing it three times from my common experience by faith, accent, and time). Sister Aloysius (Kandis Chappell) is the principal, an ancient, iron-handed, caustic, totalitarian nun-from-hell whose suspicions of her students' baser natures approaches almost Nixonian proportions. She is introduced comically, relentlessly correcting Sister James (Melissa Brown), a younger nun who wants to be liked, in a wandering interview in which she gets to imperiously declare her dislike for art, dance, Vatican II, puberty, ball-point pens, and everything that seems to bring people joy. She is not a complete haridan - she is intelligent and zings in fast ones over the plate, but hardly a sympathetic figure in her relentless protection of the school as she sees it.
Enter Father Flynn (Corey Brill), a younger, more hip, more caring, more social priest. He respresents the new wave flowing through the Church. He plays basketball. He is well-liked. He uses a ball-point pen. Sister Aloysius comes to suspect Flynn of improper behavior with one of the students, and, using Sister James as her agent, starts boring through the truth of the matter.
But the truth is a cagey thing, and for most of the play the audience is unaware if Sister Aloysius is right, or just engaged in a paranoid jihad. Sister James shows the stress of the investigation more than either of the primaries, and as Sister Aloysius digs, she find out more that makes the matter secular grey than clerical black and white. Plus, as a defender of the old faith, the sister is bound by the very limitations of the heirarchy she defends.
And yet, and this is where the play succeeds, everyone in the audience comes to that horrible moment, at different times, of what if she's right? What if Flynn is a molesting priest (though in the sixties, the term was alien to both thought and tongue, and even here it is truly a sin whose name cannot be spoken)? And as Sister Aloysius presses, Father Flynn engages in sorts of tricks, all of which offer reassurance but none of which address the truth of the matter - he makes excuses, he denies, he offers alibis which turn out to be partial in natures, he gives advice that might be (just might be) threats, he falls back on heirarchy. He is no capering villain, and that makes him all the more potentially frightening.
This is a great play, and actors Brill and Chappell both create memorable, natural, believeable characters. The old line about it being set in the past but having modern overtones is very apt, since this past Friday a Congressman in Florida resigned after it was revealed that he engaged in improper (in the same manner as noted above) discussions with minors who worked as pages. And adding to the irony was that the Congressman was the chair of the House Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus, and that his superiors in the party were not only aware of his actions, but helping him cover them up. So the wheel continues to turn, and plays such as Doubt continue to resonate.
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