Set in 1964, when the Second Vatican Council was convening, Doubt tells the story of a priest who may have molested a twelve-year-old boy — who just happens to be the sole black kid in the predominantly Irish and Italian school where the priest teaches — and the nun determined to see this priest humiliated. The flood of priestly misconduct stories that surged through the news media for several years has subsided, but the topic still rivets — particularly since playwright John Patrick Shanley's nun and priest are both complex, specific and ambiguous characters. Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning script also touches on other significant themes: the hierarchy within the church and the church's treatment of women; the meaning of a godly life, and whether it resides in strict adherence to the rules or in human love and compassion.
There's nothing preachy about Doubt. It functions as a mystery — smart, taut and evocative — and as we attempt to unravel it, we find our sympathies swinging back and forth between the protagonists. We know Sister Aloysius, thin-lipped and judgmental, a woman who leaches all the joy, color and sensuality out of life. She'd be a caricature of the Roman Catholic Church — except there's a certain magnificence to her coldness and courage, her refusal to yield to earthly authority, her resolute avoidance of sentimentality. The woman is nothing if not disciplined, but when she covers for an older nun who's losing her eyesight, saying that in a period of austerity the nun will not be replaced and the school needs every staff member it has, we suspect that her real motive is empathy. Besides, Sister Aloysius has intelligence and a sharp though adversarial wit, as well as the guts to battle with a priest in a system where males hold all the power. And if Father Flynn is a pederast, then surely any tactic she uses to expose him, no matter what harm it causes him or his victim, is justifiable.
The trouble is that Aloysius has no proof of Flynn's guilt, only self-righteous certainty, and neither do we. So for most of the evening, as she pursues him like a black-winged fury, breaking and bending rules, hurling accusations, never even questioning the boy himself because she doesn't believe he'll be honest, we're rooting for Flynn. It's Flynn who embraces the humanism and informality encouraged by Vatican II. Well, except for his attitude toward women: We note that he treats Aloysius with a condescension as profound as it is (in all probability) unconscious. Flynn does seem to be innocent, but there are moments when he buckles, when odd questions about him arise.
In the audience, we find ourselves watching the two actors' faces, bodies and movements closely for answers the playwright himself has refused to provide. At the Denver Center last spring, Jeanne Paulsen gave Aloysius a kind of contrarian warmth and a wicked sense of humor, and Sam Gregory made Flynn a smooth, practiced — but very convincing — charmer. In this OpenStage Theatre production, Denise Burson Freestone and Todd Coulter have very different takes on these roles. Freestone is more straightforwardly villainous than Paulsen, highly strung, almost quivering with righteousness. She amuses you less and makes you angrier; you long for her downfall. But at the same time, she's deeply vulnerable, in the way that hyper-rigid people tend to be: If you've no tolerance at all for ambiguity, certainty is the spar of wood you cling to in a vast and threatening sea. Coulter's priest is more full of obvious quirks and oddities than Gregory's. There's a twitchiness that makes you think there's something, perhaps his sexuality, that he hasn't come to terms with — and it's this confusion that has attracted Aloysius's rabid attention.
Like most theaters, OpenStage,which has been in existence for 35 years, is struggling financially. When, at the play's opening, director Bruce K. Freestone asked the audience for support this season, his voice carried a note of urgency. OpenStage can't begin to duplicate the cost and sophistication of the Denver Center's tech — the gorgeous walled garden, the realistic traffic sounds, the evocative lighting and perfect costumes — but this production proves what I've always believed, that at its core theater is about two things: the words and the acting. Given Shanley's brilliant script and the dedicated performances of Freestone and Coulter, this is an evening worth experiencing — and the perfect opportunity to turn out for an important Colorado company.