I believe it is the TV show “Law & Order” that uses the advertising tagline of “Ripped from the headlines.” Although first written in 2004, writer John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable could very easily use the exact same marketing line. With the current events that have occurred in the last six months or so – Bernie Fine, Jerry Sandusky, and the Milwaukee Catholic church scandals to name a few - Shanley’s play proves to be incredibly prescient.
The Montana Repertory Theatre did an excellent job bringing a difficult story to life on the stage of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. The story takes place in the Bronx, during the 1964 school year. Actor Brendan Shanahan performs admirably as Father Flynn, a priest accused of having an “unhealthy relationship” with an 8th grade boy. Suzy Hunt does an amazing job as Sister Aloysius, his accuser. The crux of story revolves around the actions of Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius believes he has sexually abused an 8th grade boy and is determined to prove it. Heavily hamstrung by the Church’s power structure and society’s beliefs in general, Sister Aloysius does what she can to get Father Flynn to admit his wrongdoing and to put a stop to his actions.
The play opens with Father Flynn at the pulpit giving a sermon that centers around doubt. If a theater goer has no idea about the general story of the play, the sermon proves to be an excellent piece of foreshadowing. If a theater goer does have that knowledge, the sermon immediately gets your mind thinking about what this man has done and how personal his sermon is. It works as an excellent way to draw the audience in from the get go. From the opening moments, I was sucked in. The rest of the play did not disappoint.
Though the subject matter of the play is difficult and uncomfortable, it is presented on stage with a tastefulness that is far from offensive. The abuse “act” does not occur on stage. There are no lurid descriptions. There is no offensive language. Just a good, albeit tragic, story.
Going into this performance I was expecting a heavy, depressing story. I had serious questions about how the topic of sexual abuse was going to be presented. In my mind I could see it going 800 different directions. And most of those were bad. I should have learned by now that the Fox Cities P.A.C. would allow for nothing worse than a great production. The Montana Rep did an excellent job with Shanley’s play, which on the surface, appears to be about a priest that molests a boy. Having seen the play, it is about so much more – faith, trust, friendship, the church, race, parenting, teaching, women’s place in society, moral obligations, perseverance, monsters, and more. Doubt: A Parable is set in 1964, but it could easily be updated to 2012. All it would need is a few costume changes and the nuns to be depicted as teachers. Everything else could pretty much remain the same. It would be just as powerful.
The scenery used for the play is definitely minimalist. A desk, two chairs, and a bookshelf remain onstage for the duration and are used for Sister Aloysius’ office. Fifteen feet away are two benches and two small bushes used to represent a courtyard area. A back drop hangs behind the set pieces to close off the rest of the stage. It’s this backdrop, along with some good lighting, that provided some of the most poignant moments of the play. There were times during the play where the backdrop acted as a mirror and reflected the actors onstage. It seemed to provide a commentary to the conversations occurring - characters needed to look at themselves in the context of what they were saying. It was one more subtle layer added to what the play was about.
Lighting was used well throughout. It almost seemed to reflect the mood of each scene. It was more subdue during personal conversations and became brightly intense during tense discussions, especially during the courtroom drama-like climax. (It wasn’t set in a courtroom but the movie buff in me wanted so badly for Father Flynn to shout, “You can’t handle the truth!”) I think the lighting also served to enhance the feeling of loneliness of Sister Aloysius and her fellow nun Sister James. The characters, sat spotlighted in one small area while the rest of the stage remained ominously dark.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ll come right out and say it… I really enjoyed the performance. A tough subject to be sure, but it was handled in a humanistic manner that screamed “real life.” The touches of humor that ran throughout were as surprising as they were well-placed, and worked well in balancing out the heavy issues being tackled. If you ever get a chance to see a performance of Doubt: A Parable, I recommend you go. It won’t necessarily be what you’d expect, but it will be a good show.