Thursday, October 29, 2009

review of *Doubt*

at Interplayers Professional Theater
seen Oct. 28

Doubt — isn’t that the one about the nun and the priest, and she’s convinced that he’s a creepy child molester? I saw the movie — why bother seeing it again?
Because seeing it onstage, reduced to just four characters, is a more intense and psychological experience. Because Interplayers’ four cast members are uniformly fine in their roles. And because this is the best drama Interplayers has produced in the past three years (and probably in the past five).

Start with Aaron Murphy’s Father Flynn — East Coast Irish accent, all-American looks, the bemused look of a man who has something to teach you and knows he has a clever way to do it. We see him solo, alone, then suckered into a meeting with two nuns that’s not at all about what he thinks it is — the priest, marginalized in his own parish.
Murphy was so convincing, he put this former Catholic schoolboy right back in the confessional. When he ended his second sermon by making the Sign of the Cross, I came this close to joining him. (We laugh at these 1964 people and their exaggerated respect for the Church’s hierarchy -- but you know, once in 1962, when I was in first grade at St. Mary’s of the Assumption, I peered over the rectory wall and saw a priest, sunning himself. With his shirt off. And was immediately convinced, truly, that I had committed a mortal sin and would roast in hellfire eternally. Which is a hard thought for a 7-year-old to bear.)

Ann Russell Whiteman strolls with authority around her office desk, convinced utterly — convinced beyond all doubt — that Father Flynn must be stopped and the children protected. (There was much talk afterwards about how the show changes from night to night. And it’s true, this time it registered with me, the number of times she’s referred to as joyless, a Puritan, cold and unforgiving; at other moments, she can appear like a warrior for righteousness.)
Whiteman’s eyes glisten early on, when she plants suspicions in the young nun’s mind; Whiteman makes clear that Sister Aloysius is a bit too eager to be regarded as the most clever fox in the henhouse. No upstart young priest is going to outmaneuver her.

As Sister James, Bethany Hart uses subtle facial expressions to convey her wonderment, doubt, anger and sadness over what her superior is trying to do. As the mother of the young boy who’s supposedly the object of Father Flynn’s pederastic lust, Rebecca M. Davis plants herself in that office chair and scowls, even as she observes decorum. She mixes being deferential with being defiant (nicely sustaining the play’s ambiguity and balance), and the emotion’s contained but still evident.

Throughout this intermissionless chess game, what we’ve been waiting for is the faceoff of priest and nun in the penultimate scene. When it arrived, at first I thought Murphy was being weak, unassertive — until I grasped (so I thought, can’t be sure, still have my doubts) that he was wearing down under Sister Aloysius’s interrogation. The pendulum was swinging: In a performance in which, for most of the time, she had seemed joyless and vindictive — and he, cheerful and innocent — now our doubts about him were rising to the forefront. Sister’s methods may be Machiavellian (corrupt means, but valuable ends, she preaches) but maybe, just maybe, she has ferreted out corruption in the end.
Or not. Doubt is a mirror that shows us ourselves: inclined to trust others, or accuse them; inclined to forgive or indict. The value of such a production — especially in a Catholic town dominated by a Catholic university and its law schools’ many graduates, its parochial schools and G-Prep Bullpups, its own sad history of priestly sex abuse and coverups — is not only that it “takes you on an emotional journey,” but that the journey, quite likely, will differ from night to night.
Theater should piss some people off. Being inoffensive is not, forever and always, a virtue. When people get angry, somebody’s touched a nerve.

Roger Welch has directed seamlessly, with no fuss and with many of the most gripping speeches delivered while stock-still. Renae Meredith’s set includes a polished-wood square for the priest’s sermons, both in the pulpit and on the basketball court: an arena for the baring of our souls.

Certainty without evidence is faith. But when certainty, absolute conviction, turns past the point of being willing to hear contradictory opinions and evidence, it hardens into dogmatism. And Sister Aloysius — played by Whiteman with squinting, aloof, marble-cold implacability — is dogmatic for 89 of the show’s 90 minutes. By the end, even she has her doubts.
Shanley is taking aim at dogmatism of all kinds, religious and political — at one point, the actual line “You lie!” is shouted at the priest, and suddenly I was transported back to Obama’s health care speech before the joint session of Congress.

Overcome your doubts (it won’t be any good, I’ve seen it before, sex abuse is such a sad topic, people draped in black who lived 45 years ago have nothing new to tell me), and just go. Theater is transitory — this one goes poof on Nov. 7 — but for theater this good, attention must be paid. Cancel your bowling night, skip Mass just this once, whatever — but go see Doubt at Interplayers.

And yes, I’m influenced by how meaningful and good tonight’s post-performance talk-back was — actors articulate, questions observant, Reed McColm moderating like a pro. Theater of the kind we can and should be proud of. An important play, done with subtlety and intelligence. I could go on and on about this cast, and about how Whiteman and Murphy’s performances in particular are exceptional and accomplished. But just go see the show for yourself.
With this show about sin, the most apparent sin is that more people aren’t supporting this show.
Lake City on the verge, Interplayers teetering — if you value theater in this town, overcome the excuses of "no time," "no money." Overcome your doubts and just go see Doubt.

[image: movie poster, from]

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At October 31, 2009 11:27 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this production for the most part.I take issue with you Bobo in one regard,I felt the blocking was weak and restrictive for the actors.The director did not seem to be comfortable with how to empower the actors movement in that space, to better accommodate the involvement of the actors and the audience.It's frustrating to watch such fine actors performances be diminished by not having the benefit of stronger blocking.I do hope to though to see equally strong shows come out of Interplayers in the future.It has been a long time and we need all the good theatre we can get.Good luck Interplayers.

At October 31, 2009 11:37 AM , Anonymous Kasey Graham said...

Congrats to all involved! It sounds incredible.

At November 03, 2009 4:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought this production was mostly very strong. I disagree slightly with the above poster, I thought the blocking (in most cases) was very good. The problem I had was with Ann Whiteman's performance which I found erratic and at times inaudible. Kudos to Interplayers though. You're right Bobo when you say it's the best thing they've done in five years. Now to figure out why lightening struck in this case and try to recreate it every time.

At November 06, 2009 1:45 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Agreed for the most part - good strong show. Bethany continues to grow with each role. Anne's character work was nice but I felt at times (and she is great at this) she listened TOO MUCH rather than keeping pace with dialogue. The show was blocked too far down at times and and the huge square on the set was well too huge.


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