Casting Doubt

Review of Doubt, New Haven Theater Company

John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, staged by the New Haven Theater Company, directed by George Kulp, is a play about suspicion, rather than “doubt,” and from that a lot follows. The famous play, set at a Catholic school in the Bronx, concerns a priest, Father Flynn (Steve Scarpa), a school principal, Sister Aloysius (Margaret Mann), and a school teacher, Sister James (Mallory Pellegrino), and the title might invite the idea that the play is about doubting one’s vocation within the clergy, or perhaps about faith in general. But Shanley wants to probe touchier topics than that. So he concocts a play in which a priest is suspected by a tough nun of molesting a young student, a black boy we never see. My doubts aren't about the characters but rather about the play.

Since the play was written and first staged after proof of priests’ sexual misconduct and molestation of their students became a scandal and an outrage, the “automatic” assumption for its audience is that Father Flynn, with his longer-than-usual fingernails and tendency to sugar his tea (he must be decadent!), has tried to seduce Donald Muller, a boy who Sister James observed acting “strange” after a private conference with Flynn. She also smelled wine on the boy’s breath.

“Doubt,” as a theme, comes in right there. Do we agree with the unflinching, unbending, humorless and ever-vigilant Sister Aloysius who is certain Flynn is—to use the term of the time of the play’s setting (1964), though the word is never used—a deviant? Or do we doubt it? That is the situation, and, as such, would seem to be a question of evidence rather than conscience. How do we make up our minds about behavior we have not observed? How do we read a person’s character? What do we use as evidence? Can we ever overcome “reasonable doubt”?

I have to confess that much of my doubt, with regard to Shanley’s play, comes from my sense that, in 1964, a nun of Sister Aloysius’s age would not be so likely to jump to such conclusions with such a flimsy pretext. What Shanley banks on is that his audience, in a very different time, won’t find a problem with the way she puts the scant evidence together, and he goes so far as to stack the deck further by providing the boy with a mother (Aleta Staton) all-too-willing to tell a principal and nun that her boy is “that way.” He's twelve years old!

But enough about my problems with what Shanley hath wrought in his Pulitzer and Tony winning play. What about the NHTC production? Since the play is dialogue-driven, with clearly marked situations, Kulp and his actors make the most of the straight-forward nature of the characters, with no attempt to slant us one way or another. Key to that neutral approach is Father Flynn. If he looks a bit guilty, if he acts a bit “questionable,” then we can decide accordingly.

Steve Scarpa as Father Flynn

Steve Scarpa as Father Flynn

Scarpa’s Flynn seems more outraged at insubordination and a nun’s meddling with his attempt to help a minority child, than he is at the allegations. Scarpa, in other words, plays Flynn “straight,” in all meanings of the term. He comes across as what his words suggest: a man who wants priests to be friends to their flocks rather than stern wardens. Would he give a boy wine to calm him? Possibly. Would he touch a boy in a manner that might be deemed (particularly by Sister Aloysius) too intimate—if only to wipe away the pain of the beatings given the boy by his dad? Possibly. Such possibilities float before us, and Shanley wants to use the politics of a later time when same-sex acts were no longer illegal as they were in 1964 to color our perception of the past. But Flynn's best line, that certainty is just an emotion, sounds a bit sophistic when offered in self-defense.

As Sister Aloysius, Mann is particularly well cast. She has a steely gaze able to scan the distance, looking upon the crash of civilization and all that is holy if students write with ballpoints rather than fountain pens or sing “Frosty the Snowman” at Christmas pageants. We have no doubt that, regardless of Shanley’s use of a topical theme, the good Sister would be doing her utmost to bring down her lax and condescending superior, if only because he represents a disturbing trend. She knows what’s best, and that’s that.

At the heart of Doubt—and that’s what makes it good theater—is the clash of wills. Mann’s Aloysius is the kind of quite correct Catholic that gives the others a bad name—and is happy to do so. But for her “evil” assumptions, Sister Aloysius is fully of her time, and not entirely unsympathetic. In her we hear the voice of every elder we’ve ever encountered who believes standards are declining. What's more, given that she truly believes what she assumes about Father Flynn, she must act.

Sister James is also well-conceived by Shanley. She’s the sweet, pretty nun, the kind whose very existence was being revolutionized by the Broadway smash (1959) and subsequent film, The Sound of Music (1965), so that being full of feeling and enthusiasm was deemed the best way to reach children raised with television. Aloysius is against all that, of course, and Pellegrino does a good job of getting across how Sister James’ meekness wars with her ambition. She wants to be a beloved teacher, but she doesn’t want to flaunt the edicts of her superior. Pellegrino’s very busy eyes say a lot when they’re avoiding all eye contact.

Margaret Mann (Sister Aloysius), Mallory Pellegrino (Sister James)

Margaret Mann (Sister Aloysius), Mallory Pellegrino (Sister James)

Doubt gets right the tensions within the hierarchy of power that make this battle one in which viewers might be tempted to break along gender lines, as priests and nuns follow different orders and the power of the priest is considerable. A telling moment is when Flynn, asked to come to Sister Aloysius' office, sits at her desk to preside over the meeting.

The role of Mrs. Muller, in her private conference with Sister Aloysius, is given a wise “I’ve heard it all before” reading by Aleta Staton, though I find the role as written a bit hard to grasp. What mother volunteers to someone like Sister Aloysius (and can anyone have doubts about her?) that her twelve-year-old son might “want to be caught” by a man like Father Flynn? None would, if she wants to keep the boy in the school. Maybe a mother a bit more dim or desperate might help sell Shanley’s improbable scene.

In the end, as “a parable,” Doubt wants to prod viewers to make up their own minds about the situation and its resolution. It could be said that neither Father Flynn nor Sister Aloysius gets the result desired. You may be pleased with the outcome, but I doubt it.

Doubt (a parable)
By John Patrick Shanley

Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Margaret Mann; Mallory Pellegrino; Steve Scarpa; Aleta Staton; Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Board Operator: Ally Kaechele

The New Haven Theater Company, March 5-7 & 12-14, 2015