When in 'Doubt' Rely on Actors

Father Flynn takes three lumps of sugar in his tea, likes singing “Frosty the Snowman,” and has a habit of keeping his fingernails long. For Sister Aloysius, the principal of a Bronx Catholic school, that is sufficient evidence to doubt his moral integrity. The Loeb Experimental Theater provides the intimacy necessary for a compelling production of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece, “Doubt: A Parable,” which will run through March 8. Under the expert direction of Sara L. Wright ’09, every word in the 90 minute production is weighty; every delivery is considerable.

This is an ambitious undertaking for Wright and producer C. Alexander Tremblay ’10, who must follow a Tony award-winning production and precede a film version that stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But despite its large ambition, what makes this production so successful is its attention to the smallest detail. Within the confines of the Ex, the small cast of four delivers, and the streamlined set allows the raised eyebrows of Sister Aloysius (Marielle E. Woods ’08) to steal the show.

While Sister Aloysius rigidly upholds traditional Catholic ideals, Father Flynn (Alex R. Breaux ’09) attempts to humanize the school. He doesn’t just deliver sermons; he coaches basketball and befriends the students. But do his attempts to modernize and humanize the Church cross the line? When the youngest nun, Sister James (Madeleine Bennet ’08), reports that Donald Muller, the school’s only black student, returned from Father Flynn’s office acting oddly and with a hint of alcohol on his breath, Sister Aloysius immediately assumes the worst. Aloysius, unwavering in her pursuit of justice, thinks her suspicions are confirmed when she discovers Flynn has worked at three different parishes in the last five years. Though Donald never appears onstage, the conflicting interests of the adults in his life illuminate Shanley’s substantial moral questions. If you yourself are uncertain about the truth, should you speak up? Where can one draw the fine line between meddling and complicity?

Mrs. Muller (Jordan Reddout ’10) arrives in Sister Aloysius’ office, poised and proper in her pink tweed, and delivers a beautiful and eloquent defense of her son. Her wish to remain oblivious to Father Flynn’s possible transgressions commands sympathy from the audience. Her poignant delivery is so effective that it’s a shame she didn’t have more lines.

Father Flynn makes up for his somewhat unconvincing sermons when he defends himself, convincing temporarily convincing both Sister James and the audience of his innocence. The acting is best when tensions escalate and Aloysius confronts Father Flynn. Although he towers over Sister Aloysius, the sister clearly makes up in confidence what she lacks in stature. Aloysius dominates the argument, remaining unwavering and composed. When she finally exits, it appears that she has upheld morality and saved the students from being victimized.

Instead of the state of moral confusion I expected, I left the theater not questioning Father Flynn’s guilt, but rather the sister’s steadfastness. Her poise and confidence overwhelmed the other characters, and her riveting performance almost translated the parable into an exploration of one woman’s rigidity. The atmosphere of racial and religious tension is slightly undercut by this emphasis on a single woman’s struggle for justice within the patriarchal church.

But the cast fulfills its promise, leaving the audience unsure if there has been any foul play. The drama is streamlined, and the shifting allegiance of Sister James is mirrored by the audience’s confusion over which account to believe. After the intensity of the dialogue, Sister Aloysius’ exaggerated sense of decorum infuses a bit of comic relief into the script. Wright’s production succeeds as a worthy representation of a grave parable.