I’ve always thought John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play Doubt was an open-and-shut case. I think the priest accused of child molestation is as guilty — well, as sin. I was surprised, then, when an audience of female correctional facility inmates with whom I saw the play a few years ago expressed a majority view that the priest is innocent. (As a colleague noted, maybe women who’ve been on the business end of the justice system are more inclined than most to extend the benefit of the doubt.)
Among friends I surveyed on Facebook, most agreed with my verdict, but a few were unsure. “I DON’T KNOW,” wrote one friend, “which I guess is what the whole dumb thing is about.”
Wherever you come down on the question, Shanley’s script is so solidly constructed that most productions treat it like (I appreciate the irony of this metaphor) a single-malt scotch: they serve it strong and straight. It’s not a play that seems to invite adventurous stagings, but that hasn’t stopped New Epic Theater from going out on a limb with a bold new Doubt at the Lab Theater.
The young company have landed a casting coup: Claudia Wilkens, one of the Twin Cities’ most esteemed and experienced actors, plays the leading role of Sister Aloysius. Company co-founder Aeysha Kinnunen plays the young nun who reluctantly approaches Sister Aloysius with suspicions about a parish priest (Adam Qualls) and a young boy, while Austene Van has the small but crucial role of the boy’s mother.
In a decision that at first seems bizarre, director/scenographer Joseph Stodola actually puts the boy onstage — in the form of a stick-limbed puppet. That decision pays off, though: while the puppet is occasionally manipulated, it mostly sits in discreet view, its head hung. Ultimately, the puppet serves as not just a visual metaphor for a character who’s vulnerable to manipulation, but as a constant reminder that this isn’t just Hill Street Blues in a habit: a child’s safety is at stake. Further, the puppet’s shock of dark curly hair serves as a constant reminder that this is an African-American child, a not-insignificant fact in an otherwise all-white Catholic school in 1964.
Other unusual staging decisions are less successful — for example, making Kinnunen serve tea from atop a scaffold, so that her guests must hold their cups up to her as though it’s the moment of transubstantiation in a Catholic Mass, is simply distracting. That said, the scaffold itself is an interesting device, particularly when it becomes a pulpit from which Qualls delivers his sermons while his flock sits uneasily below him.
The Lab is a vast space for an intimate show like this, and the scaffold helps to fill it vertically. What really fills the space, though, is the stunning lighting design by Mary Shabatura, who transforms the brick box into a cathedral. Mounted on poles and rigging, her lights are everywhere — so no matter where you sit, you’re likely looking into at least one light like the eye of God.
This is a precarious Doubt, and not just because the actors spend so much of the time climbing a ladder and leaning over ledges. While Wilkens starts out steely, her character soon cracks and starts to let on that she feels almost overcome with the enormous challenge of going up against the male-dominated Church hierarchy. Qualls makes for a very human priest, playing a key scene with Kinnunen not as a master manipulator but as a wounded soul.
Kinnunen’s seemingly pushed to the edge of sanity right from the outset; at a climactic point, she tears off her novice’s bonnet in a manner that might represent a forsaking of the Church, a graduation from innocence, or simply an acknowledgement that there’s a human being under that hat. Van, meanwhile, sits on the sidelines until it’s time for her character to appear as a pillar of strength; in an unforgettable moment, she removes her dark trenchcoat to reveal an all-white dress that’s almost blinding in the glare of Shabatura’s lighting.
This is not a definitive Doubt — but then, it’s not trying to be. It’s an adventurous staging of a text that, sadly, becomes only more resonant with each passing year.