Group: Dramatic License Productions/Vanity Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand
Dates: August 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15
Tickets: $15-$20; contact 636-220-7012 or www.brownpapertickets.com
Story: Sister Aloysius doesn’t cotton much to newfangled ideas. As principal of St. Nicholas grade school in New York City’s Bronx borough, she frowns upon ballpoint pens and most anything that doesn’t conform to her strict rules of conduct. After all, as she informs Sister James, an idealistic young teacher at the school, “Satisfaction is a vice.” The rigid code of conduct of Sr. Aloysius comes into conflict with the wave of change sweeping Catholicism in America in 1964 in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, changes endorsed whole-heartedly by Father Flynn, a popular priest in the school’s working-class parish.
Sister Aloysius believes fervently in the old order, however. When Sr. James reveals some potentially unsettling information about Fr. Flynn’s friendship with the school’s first black student, a young man named Donald Muller, Sr. Aloysius attempts to have Fr. Flynn removed from the parish, even while knowing the steps to be followed in the church’s patriarchal chain of command. Despite the uncertainty of Sr. James, the intense denial of Fr. Flynn and even the surprising acceptance of potential impropriety by Donald’s mother, Sr. Aloysius forges forward with her suspicions and her determination to protect the students.
Highlights: Written by John Patrick Shanley, this one-act work won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it’s easy to understand why. The four-character story is ingeniously crafted, a provocative, verbal tennis match that serves searing volleys of alternate persuasion between its two central characters to the point that the attentive audience is divided about the ultimate guilt or innocence of Father Flynn. Despite the play’s wordiness, its 90 minutes play out quickly in the show’s single act and maintain a riveting intensity throughout thanks to director Jason Cannon’s sharp focus on the battle of wits between Sr. Aloysius and Fr. Flynn as the latter fights for his professional survival.
Other Info: This maiden voyage of Dramatic License Productions, in conjunction with Vanity Theatre, offers a quartet of outstanding performances that keep tensions high and, yes, doubt firmly entrenched in the minds of its audience. Kim Furlow exacts a telling portrayal of the determined, tough-as-nails Sr. Aloysius, adroitly sprinkling the sobering drama with moments of unexpected levity while also packing powerful dramatic punch with the work’s clever script.
Jason Cannon is beguilingly direct as the accused priest, cunningly conveying the man’s shock, anger, resourcefulness and vulnerability at key points, while keeping his character’s true confession a coy secret. Sarah Cannon brings a winning combination of idealism and surprising wisdom to the role of Sister James, effectively voicing her uncertainty about what really is or isn’t happening with Fr. Flynn and Donald, while also understanding the difficult position of Sr. Aloysius. It’s a nicely nuanced and sophisticated interpretation that adds another layer of complexity to this mystery. As Mrs. Muller, Leah Stewart completes the grand slam of performances with a subtly shaded performance that reveals the mother’s protective love of her troubled son, willing to absorb “whatever it takes” to get the child to June and grade school graduation.
Bryan Schulte’s set design effectively divides the cozy Kranzberg Black Box stage in two areas, one depicting the office of Sr. Aloysius (anchored by portraits of Pope Paul VI and the recently assassinated Catholic president John F. Kennedy) and the other a pastoral garden between the church and the school. Kimberly Klearman’s lighting is effectively harsh in the former environment and softer in the latter, while Sheila Lenkman’s costumes capture the confinement of the clerics’ garb circa 1964 as well as the prim attire of Mrs. Muller.
A couple of glitches crop up in the production, including Jason Cannon’s use of Latin portions of Mass in his sound design, something largely abandoned for the vernacular after Vatican II. Also, Donald’s age of 12 seems too young for impending 8th grade graduation, particularly for an “average” student. Still, this riveting and thought-provoking presentation leaves little doubt about the magnificence of this Doubt.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.