Doubt : A Parable by John Patrick Shanley won the 2005 Tony award for best play, huge critical acclaim and deservedly the Pulitzer Prize for its economical, evocative dramatic power. Shanley directed his fine screen adaptation in 2008, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, in which he was able to open the play up for the screen, hedge some bets by adding plot points, but retain its potent theatricality.
The plot is ostensibly about a possible case of sexual abuse by a parish priest with a 14-year-old black student at in St. Nicholas Church School where Sister Mary Aloysius Beauvier, the principle, wants to bring the progressive teaching methods of Father Flynn to a halt by any means necessary.
The playwright calls the play a ’parable‘ and sets in the Bronx circa 1964 as he examines the church as disconnected from the culture around them. The play‘s themes of abuse by priests in society reflected explosive headlines a decade ago of not only pedophile priest scandals, but the chain of command hierarchy of the Catholic Church that tolerated known abuse. Shanley challenges us to question our assumptions, prejudices and critical thinking vis-à-vis the explosive topic of sexual abuse by the clergy.
Lantern Theatre director Katherine MacMillan returns the play as a powerful, spare theater piece, but by now, its familiarity exposes the thinness of some scenes in the original script that were fleshed out a little more clearly on screen, but mostly Shanley‘s original concepts are fully realized. The Lantern Theatre’s current production is a strong interpretation of a great chamber theater piece for a quartet of actors.
Of course, the play is anchored on the veracity of the showdowns between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius and Mary Martello and Ben Dibble deliver fine technical performances, and have formidable chemistry in the confrontational scenes, but it felt like they were still working out some of the more interpretive elements of the script.
Working actually better than the film is the relationship between Sister Aloysius and Sister Jane, played by Clare Mahoney, who doesn‘t come off as so willingly servile. They convey the guarded, but powerful emotions that roil under the surface of the physical language of their order. Mahoney subtly shifts and strengthens some of the focus of the play. It works.
After Sister Jane brings incriminating evidence against Flynn to the principal, everyone’s motives and value systems are brought into question. The student, Donald Muller, is the only African American in the school and he is dealing with racism and further being ostracized for being shy and what is mother realizes is “his nature.” But his mother wants desperately to keep him enrolled so he can matriculate to a better high school and have a chance at college.
Lisha McCay plays Mrs. Muller in the single pivotal scene when Aloysius and the boy’s mother have a conference that is brilliant crafted exposition with a lot of dramatic reach. McCay brings much to it, except that the scene, as played on opening night, seemed a bit rushed.
Building the intensity of the drama through austere visuals is Lance Kniskern’s fine set of a breakaway stone abbey, stairwell and warm dark wood principle’s office, without a paperclip out of place, keeps giving. Shon Causer’s lighting design gives the Lantern’s stage space airy dimension and definitely musing on every shadow of a doubt.
The Lantern Theater’s production of Doubt runs through Sun., Feb. 15.. Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St. 215.829.0395 | http://www.lanterntheater.org