John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is a short, brilliantly constructed, engrossing play that seems straightforward on the surface — but there's a lot going on below.
The action begins with a voice speaking in the dark. As the lights come up, we see that this voice belongs to Father Flynn, who's standing in the pulpit reciting a parable on the theme of certainty and doubt. Then we're in the study of Sister Aloysius, head of a Catholic school in the Bronx. If fleeting images of any number of theatrical nuns pop into our heads — the kindly Mother Superior in The Sound of Music, Christopher Durang's savagely funny and destructive Sister Mary Ignatius, the dopey, unfocused protagonists of the Nunsense musicals — they are swiftly evicted. Sister Aloysius is anything but one-dimensional; she's a powerful and entirely original character. As we meet her, she's telling an idealistic young teacher, Sister James, that showing empathy and kindness to her students is in no way helping them. It's not that Sister Aloysius doesn't believe in doing good: It's just that the good she envisions is abstract, lofty, pure and absolute, the kind of virtue that has nothing to do with comforting a lonely child or encouraging an insecure young colleague. "Innocence is a form of laziness," she says. A teacher should be "a fierce moral guardian."
Sister Aloysius's judgmentalism and her aversion to sugar, ballpoint pens ("always the easy way out these days") and "Frosty the Snowman" (because it has lyrics about magic) are comical, but the woman is destructive, particularly when she becomes convinced on only the slightest evidence that Father Flynn is a pederast who is molesting the school's one black student. Given the hierarchical structure of the church and her secondary status as a women, she knows it will be hard to unmask Father Flynn, but she sticks to her guns — and you watch in horror as she pursues the man like an avenging fury through scene after scene. Except that, periodically, it seems there could be truth to her accusations. Isn't Father Flynn just a little too glib and charming? Doesn't he seem a touch narcissistic? And isn't it possible that, after years of watching the comings and goings at her school, this dour nun has developed a keen intuition about just what can — and often does — happen between a priest and a young boy? But Shanley doesn't tip his hand.
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Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 17, Ricketson Theatre. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
I sometimes get tired of the universal love affair that playwrights have with ambiguous endings. Just once I'd like to experience the neat certainty we get at the end of a murder mystery: Everyone congregates on stage, and after some back and forth, the detective announces that the butler did it. But, of course, that longing for certainty is exactly what Shanley is disputing. He's saying that not only is doubt inescapable, it's also a rich state of mind, the source of endless permutations of thought and imagination, a deep soil from which vibrant new shapes can appear. Those who refuse to entertain doubt lead narrow lives. Doubt is about human behavior and also our concepts of godliness. It explores the old dichotomy between those who believe salvation is found in renunciation, and those who find it in love — and warns that there's truth as well as danger to both approaches. Kindly Father Flynn may be a destroyer; it's coldhearted Sister Aloysius who covers the rose bushes in the garden against a coming frost.
With its sun and shadow-dappled walls, that garden feels like a blessed refuge in the middle of the teeming city, thanks to Vicki Smith's set and Jane Spencer's beautiful lighting. The characters are just as shaded, and for the most part subtly played. Sam Gregory makes Father Flynn an absolute charmer, in a performance that also hints at something corrupt and self-serving at the core. Nisi Sturgis is effective as Sister James, but never fully communicates the character's confusion and crisis of soul. Jeanne Paulsen is magnificent as Sister Aloysius, bringing the nun to stinging life; we like watching her every bit as much as we'd probably hate knowing her. In one of the play's best scenes, she speaks to the mother of the boy she believes is being abused, a woman so beaten down by life that she has learned to accommodate in ways most of us could never imagine. Kim Staunton is riveting in this role, steadfastly opposing Sister Aloysius's sharp-edged judgments with her own slow, sad truth and the boundless depths of her love for her son.