There's no preaching in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, A Parable, which is set in a Catholic boys' school in 1964. Its story concerns that ages-old tradition of priests molesting little boys, but its aim is to address not the various horrors of that issue, but rather the difference between what we believe and what we perceive to be true. Doubt is, in its current Actors Theatre production, a complex meditation on truth that plays out as a straightforward entertainment on Jeff Thomson's splendid and beautifully lit set.
In Shanley's Pulitzer-winning play, Sister Aloysius is convinced that Father Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with one of the students at the parochial school where she is principal. She attempts to build a case against Father with appeals to Sister James, the boy's teacher, and his mother, who's hesitant to support Sister's claim for a rather shocking reason. Shanley folds perspectives as neatly as a napkin, so that we're left with considerable doubt of our own — about the innocence of Flynn, who invents wholesale stories to tell in his Sunday sermons; Sister Aloysius' motives; the boy's mother's ability to protect her own son.
The acting is sublime. In the lead, Patti Davis Suarez brings new depth to the kind of role from which she's made a career: the uptight know-it-all with an ax to grind. Her Sister Aloysius is certainty itself, clad in a costume of piety and brought boldly to life with canny shifts into and out of Shanley's odd mix of comedy and drama.
Doubt, a Parable
Herberger Theatre Center, 222 East Monroe Street
Doubt, a Parable continues through September 28. Call 602-253-6701.
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Ferracane, in round-collared ecumenical garb, makes good use of Father Flynn's need to personalize everything. He has a priest's booming, precise pulpit diction, with which he delivers a pair of sermons glowing with questionable warmth that keep the audience guessing about Father's sincerity. Angelica Howland brings a necessary naiveté to Sister James, who "feels further from God" when asked to be suspicious of others. And in her single dramatic scene, Lillie Richardson provides the play's peculiar and rather astonishing huzzah with such confident style that it seems not only plausible, but likely.
If I have a quibble, it's that director Matthew Weiner appears to have punched up the comedy in what's clearly meant to be a melodrama. I was once Catholic myself, and so I probably like laughing about cranky nuns and priests diddling altar boys more than most. But I'm not convinced that Shanley meant to wring so many laughs from such a sensitive subject. Even as Suarez was expertly biting off laugh lines, I was never sure that the snappy repartee I was hearing was actually on the page.
Nevertheless, Weiner makes a seamless blend of comedy's aloofness and the more complex turns of Shanley's story. That's no easy task, as the playwright neither takes sides nor offers a tidy answer about which of these people may have erred. It's an impasse that makes his story, so capably told in this production, all the more compelling.