Though it’s only six years old, John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt: A Parable has already become a contemporary classic. I attended Ten Thousand Things’ new production of the play on Saturday with my friend Sarah Harper, an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, and she said that not only had she seen the Oscar-nominated 2008 film adaptation, the play had been staged by her high school. Saturday’s performance took place at the Minnesota Correctional Facility for women in Shakopee — it will be presented to the public starting February 11 at Open Book — and it’s a perfect choice for this company, which specializes in up-close, emotionally-charged theater.
The play, set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, has only four characters: the popular Father Flynn (Kris Nelson), the novice teacher Sister James (Jane Froiland), the school principal Sister Aloysius (Sally Wingert), and Mrs. Muller (Regina Marie Williams), the mother of 12-year-old Donald, whom Sister Aloysius is convinced has been the target of pedophilic advances by Father Flynn. The tightly structured plot batters Sister Aolysius’s conviction on all fronts: empirical facts (some evidence indicates an innocent explanation for what the nuns have observed), Church hierarchy (it’s the job of the parish pastor, not the school principal, to investigate such matters), and most horrifyingly, moral relativism (is Donald at risk of a worse fate than being sexually molested?). Shanley situates this compelling story in a rich setting that involves questions of race, class, sexuality, Church history, and, ultimately, theology. WWJD? Even for a nun, the answer to that question is not always clear.
At the heart of the play, and director Peter Rothstein’s sizzling production, is Sister Aloysius. Wingert’s fierce performance is a must-see; she rails with the fury of Ahab, easy though it would be to accept the world’s assurances that the killer whale she pursues is a figment of her imagination. Nelson and Froiland are also effective, though those who have seen the film will miss the nuance Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams brought to their roles. In contrast to Hoffman’s persistently malevolent performance, Nelson portrays Father Flynn as a cheerful man full of buoyant bonhomie; when he cracks, he falls all the harder.
Williams gets only one scene, but it’s a tour de force that had the inmates cheering. Shanley puts her character in a thick knot from which there is no easy escape, and Williams and Wingert make the most of their intense face-off, in which they debate how — or whether — to fight their way out of the cage that they and Donald are trapped in together.
The play leaves room for argument as to whether or not Father Flynn is innocent, but it’s always been my impression that Shanley tips the scales in favor of Aloysius, and as Wingert pointed out in a post-performance discussion, in wake of the revelation that child abuse was shockingly widespread in the Catholic Church at that time, history is on her side. Still, when asked for a show of hands, the majority of the inmates at Saturday’s performance indicated a belief that Alosyius was mistaken in her accusations regarding the priest.
That fact is testament to the company’s skill in portraying the complexity of the situation, but it also seemed that at least one of the women in the audience took Aloysius’s late revelation that she has “such doubt” to be referring directly to the question of Flynn’s guilt. I think Sister Aloysius’s doubt is larger than that. As one who attended a Catholic school that was, even in the 1990s, sadly similar to the one depicted in this play — yes, even in the darkest respects — that is a doubt that I share.