As with any human institution, the Catholic Church is complex, a religious home for all kinds of people..
Good works, education and spiritual uplift are its hallmarks, but in recent years, stories of child abuse and deeply damaged victims have surfaced. A small percentage of priests, a group of supposedly celibate men in leadership roles, have been accused of molestation. Some have admitted guilt, while others furiously denied wrongdoing. The church has paid dearly, in financial compensation and institutional upheaval.
See John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre and you may well walk back to your car wondering: Is Father Brendan Flynn one of those priests?
Shanley’s drama, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and best play Tony Award, pits a popular, progressive priest against a rigid by-the-books nun. The play is crafted to provoke that indecision embodied in its title. Is the priest guilty of an improper relationship with a 12-year-old boy? Or is the suspicious nun overreaching, seeing sin in compassionate mentoring and trying to damage a good man’s reputation?
Staged by J. Barry Lewis, the excellent Maltz production has just a two-week run — which is too bad. Even at the show’s first performance, the power of this play and the cast was undeniable.
Set in a Bronx parochial school in 1964, Doubt centers around the suspicions of the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius (Maureen Anderman). Sister James (Julie Kleiner), a young eighth-grade teacher, confides some disturbing observations about Father Flynn’s behavior toward Donald Muller, an altar boy who is the school’s first black pupil. Father Flynn (Jim Ballard) is aghast at the principal’s increasingly frank complaints, folding a rebuttal into a sermon about gossip, then turning threatening himself.
At one point, Sister Aloysius summons Donald’s mom, Mrs. Muller (Karen Stephens), to her office for what she imagines will be a shocking discussion of her suspicions. But the conversation doesn’t go that way, not at all, and Stephens (as with so many actresses who have preceded her in the role) makes so much of her single scene that she walks out the office door to exit applause.
Kleiner’s sweet, naive, overly emotional Sister James becomes the audience proxy in the clash between the priest and the nun. At times, she believes Sister Aloysius. Then she’s swayed by Father Flynn. Shanley wants it that way, for her and for those watching. The Broadway-tested Anderman conveys steely resolve, yet her wonderfully expressive face betrays a wild array of emotions: anger, craftiness, triumph, repulsion. Ballard is just as formidable, a man aware of his power and the ingratiating effect of the well-timed smile.
As always, the Maltz’s physical production is first-rate. Set designer Timothy Mackabee gives Sister Aloysius an office with just-right ‘60s details, from the cinderblock walls and silvery radiator to the photographs of Pope Paul VI and President John F. Kennedy. Paul Black’s lighting design suggests the play’s wintertime setting. Anna Hillbery supplies the nuns’ Sisters of Charity habits, the priest’s cassock and vestments, and a dress-up ensemble with hat and gloves for Mrs. Muller to wear on her visit to the school. Marty Mets’ sound design, particularly the tonally varied “ping” of bells, is lovely.
Doubt runs just over 90 minutes, with no intermission. Its free-form coda consists of the debate it stirs. Some will be certain Sister Aloysius is right (arguably, Shanley tips the play that way). Others will think the priest’s vindication is right. Still others will be uncertain. No easy answers make for a rich time at the theater.