Piety and turmoil in 1964

theater review

With accusations of molestation, 'Doubt' explores perils of moral certainty

August 31, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

The Virgin Mary is split in two.

That's the first thing the audience sees in Everyman Theatre's current production of Doubt - and we notice it even before the play begins.

That long crack, running from halo to heel in the full-sized triptych, divides this mother from the holy infant dangling on her knee.

Like much in this staging, it's not particularly subtle, but it effectively communicates the main themes of John Patrick Shanley's play, which picked up both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 2005.

That tear signifies the split in the Catholic Church itself caused by the pedophilia scandals. It suggests the rupture between mother and child. And it signals the doubts that can sunder even the most seemingly sanguine mind.

Doubt is set in a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx in 1964, when the Church was in turmoil over the reforms of Vatican II, which featured such modern updates as celebrating the Mass in English, instead of Latin.

Sister Aloysius, the school's principal (played with a bluff heartiness by Laura Giannarelli) suspects that a charismatic new priest is molesting the school's only African-American pupil. But because of the Byzantine Church hierarchy at the time, she was barred from bringing her concerns to the bishop or the police.

Even more than a whodunit (or in this case, a whatwasdunit), Doubt explores the pitfalls of moral certainty.

Sister Aloysius is a gimlet-eyed realist, but she also is a small, perilous step away from becoming a fanatic willing to sacrifice everything and anyone to a just cause - even the child she ostensibly is trying to protect.

She balks at such innovations as ballpoint pens, arts education, and such secular Christmas carols as "Frosty the Snowman" - all championed by the young priest.

How much of Sister Aloysius' attack is motivated by personal dislike?

For his part, Father Flynn (the appealing Clinton Brandhagen) seems to be the Church's great hope: good-looking, athletic and possessed of the common touch.

It's only when the priest and nun confer in her office that the audience senses the man's hidden arrogance. In one telling moment, when invited to sit down, Father Flynn positions himself behind the principal's desk and in her chair. The teapot rests on the desk, perhaps five inches from his hand. He invites the two women present to cross the room, pick up the teapot and serve him - and unquestioningly, they comply.

The performances often are engrossing, but are slightly undeveloped. The three main actors would benefit by adding another dimension to their portrayals.

Giannarelli successfully keeps her character from lapsing into the parody of reactionary nuns popularized by such shows as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But, I couldn't help wishing she were even meaner and more vindictive to the priest and to the younger nun whom she alternately mentors and bullies.

Brandhagen is an engaging presence, but he could use more authority. His character's anger at the accusations builds, but slowly. At one point, when Father Flynn was being browbeaten by Sister Aloysius, I kept hoping he would get out of his chair and, literally, stand up for himself.

The third main character, a young teacher named Sister James, functions primarily as an observer. Inevitably, her role is the least compelling of the three. Katy Carkuff shows glimpses of a woman reluctant to face life's unpleasant truths, but it would be enlightening to sense more desperation behind her drive to remain in the dark.

Finally, as the parent of a troubled student, Dawn Ursula initially is a bit stiff. But, when the character is goaded into making a disturbing revelation, Ursula imbues the role with an unexpected, tenacious dignity.

My only real quibble with Vincent Lancisi's direction is the Nu Yawk accents. They don't work. The actors sprinkle them like salt over their "real" voices. A convincing accent behaves more like butter melting into toast; you can't tell where one flavor stops and the other begins.

James Fouchard's set design is full of grace notes, from the checkerboard linoleum floor reminiscent of elementary schools throughout the U.S. in the 1960s, to the leafless, winter vines that enmesh the Church's exterior pillars.

It's hard to believe that anything so tangled and frail-looking could gradually pull down a massive edifice made out of stone.

If you go

Doubt runs at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., through Oct. 5. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. Sundays. $24-$38. Call 410-752-2208 or visit www.everymantheatre.org.

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