Review: “Doubt: A Parable”

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Where: Writers Theatre at Glencoe Union Church, 263 Park Ave.
When: through July 19
Tickets: $35-$75
Phone: 773-975-8150

What’s a moral person to do when she becomes absolutely convinced that a great evil is being perpetrated even though she has no concrete proof and the powers that be make it impossible to rectify the situation?

That’s the dilemma facing Sister Aloysius Beauvier in John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 “Doubt: A Parable,” which is enjoying a first-rate revival by Writers Theatre. It is cannily staged in the library of the handsome Glencoe Union Church while its new theater building is being constructed.

Set in 1964 at St. Nicholas, a Bronx Catholic church and school, during a time of tumultuous change both in society and in the religious establishment, the complex Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play pits the feared traditionalist nun, who is principal of the school, against the popular Father Flynn, the progressive parish priest and basketball coach. She believes he’s engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with the students, particularly Donald Muller, the first African American child in an institution that’s mostly served Irish and Italian immigrants. But given the church’s strict hierarchy, her only recourse is to go to her immediate superior, whom she knows to be oblivious.

As relevant as it was a decade ago when scandals about sexual abuse by priests and the cover-ups were breaking, the 95-minute intermission-less piece is subject to shades of interpretation depending on how it’s played. In most versions I’ve seen, we start by thinking Sister Aloysius’ suspicions are unfounded, then gradually come to believe that there may be truth to them because, amiable and admirable as he appears to be, Father Flynn’s behavior is just a little off.

Thanks to William Brown’s direction and the fine acting, my reaction to Writers Theatre’s production is rather different. It starts with Karen Janes Woditsch’s searing performance as Sister Aloysius. We see her uncompromising severity, sometimes tinged with acid humor, in her initial talk with Sister James (the luminous Eliza Stoughton), the eighth-grade history teacher who is taken to task for everything from loving her subject to wanting her students to like it and her. Exerting her authority, the principal admonishes her open-hearted underling not to trust anyone or anything, even the origin of a boy’s bloody nose (it might be self-inflicted).

She also manipulates Sister James into recounting an incident involving Father Flynn and Donald Muller that may or may not have an innocent explanation, though she sees only the worst possibility. Then she insists that the younger nun be present at any meeting she has with the priest, a practical necessity (because of church rules) that nonetheless causes Sister James great distress.

While her treatment of Sister James and adherence to rigid discipline are soul-deadening enough to make us dislike Sister Aloysius, the fierce Woditsch turns her unwavering determination to bring down Father Flynn no matter what the cost into something that goes beyond righteous indignation to become a personal vendetta. We don’t know if she hates him because of what she believes he’s done, or because the church rules render her powerless to see he’s punished, or simply because he represents the new, more compassionate order that wants to engage with the community (Vatican II, and all that), but hate him she does (right down to the fact that he uses ball point pens, which she abhors).

What really tips the balance for me is Steve Haggard’s Father Flynn. He’s personable, straightforward, and sincere without giving any hint that anything is amiss in his relationships. His version of what happened with Donald, and his reasons for not divulging the details, sway us as readily as they do Sister James. He’s steadfast in asserting his innocence without being overbearing, and when he pulls rank and refuses to confess to Sister Aloysius or let her intimidate him, she’s been so dogged, we tend to sympathize with him. Even in their final meeting, when he throws himself on her mercy, it can be seen simply as his attempt to save his reputation from the gossip and innuendo generated by what he regards as persecution.

Sister Aloysius, of course, takes this as an admission of guilt, but I find Writers’ production tilts in the other direction. Yet another perspective comes from the sister’s meeting with Mrs. Muller (the movingly understated Ann Joseph) who, though she hasn’t seen anything beyond kindness from Father Flynn toward Donald, says in no uncertain terms that she would turn a blind eye if she had, because she’d do anything to protect her son from the brutality of his father and others. The sister is appalled, but in the end, no one is better off for her efforts. The system hasn’t changed, except perhaps for the fact that she has doubts.

Kevin Depinet’s scenic design takes advantage of the church setting, incorporating architectural details from the building into the office and sanctuary. Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes are spot on.

All in all, Writers Theatre’s “Doubt: A Parable” is definitely worth a trip to Glencoe.