All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Of the myriad productions I’ve seen of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” Kathryn MacMillan’s staging for Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater is the first to give serious consideration to the play’s subtitle, “A Parable.”
MacMillan’s approach solidly provokes thought and reaches conclusions based on an allegorical example built on concrete story elements. It is more direct and less ambiguous/mysterious than other productions. MacMillan’s “Doubt” is a frighteningly cautionary tale about absolute moralism going too far, far enough to discredit reputations and ruin lives. It shunts all other possible readings of Shanley’s play to the sidelines and is, by consequence, more powerful than some productions that linger teasingly in “Doubt’s” grayer areas and entertain the impression that the vindictive nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, may have genuine, irrefutable grounds for her suspiciousness and activism. MacMillan has been brave in presenting Aloysius as an all-out bully who will ride her impressions to an extreme, like many current bullies and activists. Especially since Shanley has upped “Doubt’s” ante by making the unswerving nun’s bête noire a priest she believes is behaving improperly, and illegally, with a pre-teen male altar boy, the lone black student at the Bronx Catholic school where Aloysius is the principal.
Notice all the dynamics Shanley sets in play. He touches on one of the primary iniquities of our time, the rampant, ubiquitous molestation of young boys by priests, but he creates a case in which the priest could as likely be the victim of a harridan’s paranoia as he is one of perpetrators of a crime that ranks among the Roman Catholic Church’s modern shames. (In MacMillan’s staging, Shanley is not concerned with the modern issue. He uses it, rather, to heighten curiosity and give the impression that pastoral impropriety may be the crux of his play.) He makes the child involved a black 12-year-old whose father is already beating him because he suspects his son to be homosexual and who looks to his place in a parochial school, and at the priest who befriends him, as a respite from the attacks he endured in public school and the rejection of his father. The boy’s mother is one who thinks Aloysius should cease and desist in her investigation of the priest.
And Shanley continues to add psychological and possibly evidential layers. The priest writes brilliant sermons — We hear two about doubt and intolerance. — and demonstrates he has a shepherd’s regard for the souls he is supposed to guide and succor. Sister Aloysius, meanwhile, drops several hints that she resents a woman’s role in Church hierarchy and may have some early feminist disdain for men (although she would never realize to be able to admit it). Among the more stunning moments in MacMillan’s “Doubt” is when the priest, Father Brendan Flynn, arrives for a meeting in Aloysius’s office and takes the chair behind her desk, the principal’s chair, and leaves her to be guest seeking a seat in her own lair. The sequence underscores Aloysius’s disdain for the male hierarchy she has vowed to obey while illustrating the chain of command, and ecclesiastical power, within the Church.
One more curve is “Doubt” takes place in 1964, a year before the modifications to the Church that Pope John XXIII began and Pope Paul VI instituted as the result of the Second Vatican Council, popularly known at Vatican II.
Think of all the paths and emphases Shanley so generously provides directors staging “Doubt.” Kathryn MacMillan has gone for the most straightforward of the routes, one that leaves room for little ambiguity and centers on one’s woman’s witch hunt against a man MacMillan’s Lantern production presents as entirely innocent. Some of the doubt other productions generated may be missing, but it isn’t missed. Dramatically, emotionally, and intellectually, MacMillan’s take rivets with its portrait of a monomaniacal crusader who leaps from a minimal bit of misinterpreted hearsay to launch an attack that may serve her personal agenda, to keep the Church a fearsome, authoritative place, as much as it demands justice. MacMillan’s “Doubt” is scarier than many more nuanced productions because it illustrates the damage one convinced and vindictive person can do despite flimsy evidence. This “Doubt” takes advantage of current events like priests’ perfidy and racial sensitivity while focusing on the element that make Shanley’s play an incisive parable. MacMillan shows villainy afoot in the name of respectability and righteousness. She and Shanley illustrate the harm and havoc caused by moralistic crusaders — political, religious, or socially motivated — who see one’s conduct of life as absolute and demand others follow their tenets. Lantern’s “Doubt” touches or more than a well-publicized record of priests’ wrongdoing and chooses to pass by it to get to the thornier, equally contemptible, and as insidiously rampant Puritanism that people have contended with from time eternal and which has vestiges in today’s political correctness and religious radicalism of all stripes.
The Lantern’s “Doubt” becomes more universal in scope by staying more narrow in focus, and the result is marvelous. MacMillan has put the biggest issues of “Doubt” in the forefront while mounting a searing, arresting production built around the magnificent portrayal of Sister Aloysius by Mary Martello, the sincere, passionate performance of Ben Dibble as the accused Father Flynn, and poignant accenting turns by Claire Mahoney as the young nun, Sister James, and by Lisha McKoy as the young altar boy’s mother.
All do a fine job and make Lantern’s “Doubt” a compelling, thought-provoking experience, but Martello’s rigidity and way with a sardonic line and persuasive innuendo are extraordinary and vault this production to a piercing level that speaks volume and clearly shows the face of judgmental orthodoxy that claims to act in the name of justice, decency, and order. Martello’s Aloysius never wavers and is always mentally and verbally prepared for those who challenge her or try to give her more perspective. She is the true believer on a mission and proves few beings on Earth can be more dangerous or damaging that one who fits such a description.
Shanley’s Sister Aloysius says she uses fear and intimidation as a tool to keep students and people who stray too far from Catholic doctrine in check. Martello’s Sister Aloysius shows such a woman in action. The actress never veers from her course of righteous certainty. Even when she as principal, gives Sister James sound advice about discipline and ways to handle classroom situations, you see the coldness and dominance in a character that, like MacMillan’s production recognizes no gray area and attacks what is viewed as the beast at hand.
Martello doesn’t control her acting. She acts controlled, just as Aloysius is controlling. Most terrifying of all, she keeps Aloysius believably human, so the monster comes from the strategic cunning within and is never out of scale of disproportionate in any direction. It is the reality with which Martello endows Aloysius that makes her a more potent threat. Watching this performance, you can see how Carrie Nationsacidk and other moralists get their way and make life miserable for millions in the name of their vision of goodness. This is remarkable work, a performance that adds to Martello’s already solid reputation as an actress who can handle anything. Martello can be big and push comedy to an antic level, when warranted. In “Doubt,” she is consistent in Aloysius’s disciplinary zeal and saves her talent for comedy to purposefully, and acidly, deliver Aloysius’s many ripostes that put Father Flynn, Sister James, and the altar boy’s mother, among others, heard about but unseen, on the defensive.
Confidence is another hallmark of Martello’s performance. She portrays Aloysius as one who inherently trusts her perceptions and impressions. She betrays no jot of doubt and takes perhaps sinful pride in her ability to read a situation and congratulate herself for her acute perspicacity.
This faith in her intuition gives Aloysius a sense of certainly. Armed with it, she Is firm in her opinions and pronouncements, whether they concern children, education, Church policy, or Father Flynn.
Certainty makes Sister Aloysius formidable, and Martello conveys her self-satisfaction in unflinchingly taking corrective steps that she deems need to be taken, obedience and Church protocol be dashed.
The strength of Martello’s performance, and its clear depiction of a woman convinced, is the anchor of MacMillan’s production. Dibble, McKoy, and Mahoney are perform wonderfully, but Martello reveals the danger in giving the true believer the sway to make trouble and influence policy. Aloysius’s certainty hides a multitude of hard cold resentments, but on the surface, Martello creates a character who is cold and unfriendly but intent doing all she believes is necessary and right.
Martello’s performance is great work and would be, alone, be a reason to see “Doubt.” Ben Dibble, Lisha McCoy, and Clare Mahoney add to the riches.
Ben Dibble plays Father Flynn in a way that is so natural and noble, it is difficult to suspect him of any wrongdoing, let alone child abuse.
That could be a ploy on MacMillan’s or Dibble’s part to disarm the audience and keep them from sharing Aloysius’s impressions and conclusiona. At Lantern, though, I think we are meant to see a man who is above reproach. No matter what is or has been going on among priests and altar boys, Dibble’s Father Flynn doesn’t seem to a part of the problem. He is, on the contrary, a dedicated, compassionate pastor who seeks to break the barrier between priest and parishioner and show leaderlike attention to a young lad in need of a listener to whom he can express ideas without worry about disapproval or corporal reprisals.
This is another way in which MacMillan takes “a parable” more literally. She lets the audience make the mental leaps headlines will foster, but she makes “Doubt” less a play about a nun’s intervention into possible atrocity than it is about the metaphorical slaughter of the innocent by an allegedly virtuous and well-meaning hand.
Father Flynn is not the only victim of Aloysius’s unwavering sternness and suspicion. The young black altar boy Flynn befriended is wounded along the way. As is Sister James, who is seeing a side of human nature and of the Church that may affect her vocation.
MacMillan’s are good choices. Smart choices. Interesting choices.
Ben Dibble helps to make them possible by playing Father Flynn as a devoted prelate who has visible compassion for his parishioners, writing ability that makes his sermons clever and to the point, and a modern outlook about priesthood that goes against Aloysius’s rigid orthodoxy and sense of leadership through enforced superiority.
Dibble lets us see Flynn’s overall benevolence and decency when, in the first scene in which Aloysius reveals her suspicions, a revelation that comes only after Flynn demands to the know the true purpose of a meeting Aloysius has allegedly convened to organize a Christmas pageant, he reacts with outrage that seems more in the style of the falsely accused than the guilty . (The attitudes towards “Frosty the Snowman” in th pageant discussion is hilarious.)
We see the priest’s cleverness in his sermons about doubt and intolerance, delivered with conviction and meant to hit home to the people hearing them. The “intolerance” sermon certainly has Sister Aloysius as its catalyst as well as its primary target.
Dibble displays decency that is neither a dodge nor a decoy. No one, not MacMillan, not Dibble, not Shanley, sinks to devices in this production. His outrage at Aloysius’s allegations is as genuine as his insight into problems within his parish and his method of helping a young person who needs a friendly guiding hand. MacMillan’s production comments on how the ferally moral make everything tawdry. It is to Shanley’s credit that he wrote “Doubt” in a way that can cast suspicion on Father Flynn but also left directors the option to use Aloysius’s surmise as a huge red herring that might distract, and stimulate speculation but has no bearing on Father Flynn’s actual character.
Even the ploy Aloysius uses to trap Father Flynn gets called under question because of MacMillan’s production. You see Father Flynn as man who might appeal to the Bishop to take the road of least resistance while matters at St. Nicholas are settled without him. Because of this, it is Sister Aloysius’s fate you might debate following the Lantern staging.
Dibble handles all aspects of his role with sincerity, and they blend nicely into a whole. In the end, he is a victim, but not necessarily a willing victim. He could be diplomat with some moves up his sleeve once he’s settled in his new parish.
Clare Mahoney is excellent as Sister James, who grows from being intimidated and docile to a woman who can speak her mind, especially after she realizes how Aloysius has used her to foil Father Flynn.
Mahoney shows the same earnestness as Dibble. She comes across as a thoroughly trustworthy character who has to learn the difference between taking direction from one for whom strictness is imperative and using her own judgment to follow her own course.
Lisha McKoy quickly loses her deference for Sister Aloysius and makes a stance for truth, honesty, and a mother’s wishes as the parent of the young man Father Flynn tries to welcome to a place where he is one of a kind at a time when civil rights legislation and meaningful integration are in their infancy. McKoy’s performance is particularly moving because, unlike her castmates, he does not have robes, turned collars, or elaborate vestments to help define her character. She wins the audience’s affection logic and the clear-headedness of a mother who knows her child and expects the Church to help her provide the best for him.
Lance Kniskern’s uses Lantern’s compact space to give on an entire sense of St. Nicholas, the Bronx church at which Father Flynn is a priest, and Sister Aloysius runs the school. His upstage left chapel makes an excellent setting for Flynn’s sermons. The austerity of Aloysius’s office is also telling.
Janus Stefanowicz was inspired when she made the decision to forgo an wimple and have Sister Aloysius cover her head in a black bonnet that looks like as if it would be worn by a Puritan.
“Doubt: A Parable” runs through Sunday, February 15 at the Lantern Theatre, 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, February 4. Tickets range from $39 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by visiting www.lanterntheater.org.