My review of Globe Theatre’s production of Doubt, A Parable

This is the review I’ve sent to CBC’s Afternoon Edition and is more or less what I’ll be saying on the radio this afternoon (probably about 4:10 p.m., though I haven’t heard for certain). As they say, check against delivery!


Globe Theatre is closing out its mainstage season right now with Doubt, A Parable, a Pulitzer Prize-winner recently made into a movie. Edward Willett was there last night for the opening performance and joins me now.

First, Ed, tell us, have you seen the movie?

No, I haven’t, so the story-though I vaguely knew what it was about-was completely fresh to me. I may check out the movie now, though.

Well then, let’s forget the movie. Tell us about the play.

Doubt, A Parable, is set in the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. It begins with a monologue, a sermon by the priest, Father Flynn, in which he asks the question that becomes, in a way, the theme of the entire play: “What do you do when you’re not sure?”

Flynn, who establishes that we’re in 1964 by referencing the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy, suggests in his sermon that when you begin to question the truth of everything you thought you knew that that doubt itself, shared among many others who also have doubts, becomes a kind of social glue, a way to build bonds with other people. (And certainly doubt is the glue that binds the plot and characters of this play together!)

In the next scene we’re in the principal’s office. Sister Aloysius is the principal, and she seems like someone who has no doubts at all. She believes in being a stern, frightening figure, she doesn’t hold with newfangled inventions like ballpoint pens (or even cartridge pens-she thinks kids should learn penmanship with a proper fountain pen). She’s old-fashioned-but she’s seen a lot in her lifetime, and a lot in her school.

She talks with a very young nun and new teacher, Sister James, who, though Sister Aloysius finds her terribly innocent and naïve, has been placed in charge of the Grade 8 class. Sister Aloysius tells her she must be canny, she must distance herself from her charges and be more formal-and she plants a seed of doubt in Sister James’s mind, and in the mind of the audience, about Father Flynn. She’s concerned about Flynn’s relationship with the boys, an in particular, about his relationship with St. Nicholas’s first black student, Donald Muller. She wants Sister James to keep her eyes open for anything that seems suspicious.

Soon enough, Sister James reports to Sister Aloysius that Donald came back from a private meeting with Father Flynn acting oddly and with alcohol on his breath. Over the course of the play, we get different perspectives on exactly what the relationship is between Donald and Flynn. Sister Aloysius is convinced that Flynn has sexual designs on the boy. Flynn denies it and says he only wants to be a friend to an isolated boy who needs one. Sister James doesn’t know who to believe, but her own nature inclines her toward Flynn. And then we get another perspective when Sister Aloysius calls Donald’s mother in to talk to her, a perspective that seems both surprising and yet possibly quite valid.

The one thing all of these characters have in common is…doubt. And as we watch them struggle with it, we’re led to doubt some of our certainties about faith and where the greatest good can be found.

It sounds like the kind of play that will have people talking after they leave the theatre.

Absolutely. It’s presented in one act, about 90 minutes long, and when it was first on Broadway in 2005 the actors liked to say that the second act occurred among the audience members as they discussed the play afterward, with some people siding with Flynn and some with Sister Aloysius.

It’s impossible, of course, but it would be interesting to know how audiences would have reacted if the play had been written and performed at the time it was set, before all the news about sex scandals involving priests in the Catholic Church became widespread. I think that because of our knowledge that these things really did happen, modern audiences may be more inclined to believe that Flynn is guilty, when, in fact, there is room in the play to wonder.

It’s a beautifully written play, with subtlety and elegance and depth. It absolutely deserves the Pulitzer it won for playwright John Patrick Shanley.

This sounds like a play that demands solid acting from the cast. Who’s in it, and how did they do?

It certainly does demand good acting, and it gets it.

The key performance is, without question, that of Sister Aloysius, and Valerie Pearson is absolutely magnificent in the role. She seems at first as stern and rock-solid as the statue of a saint, but as the play progresses we see more of her human side and her own vulnerabilities and fears. One thing we never doubt–if you’ll pardon the expression-is Sister Aloysius’s absolute devotion to what is best for the children in her charge. She’s willing to do whatever she has to to protect them. She’s like a razor-sharp sword in a plain black scabbard. When she needs to, she unsheathes that blade, that core of steel in her character, and you have no doubt-there’s that word again-that she’s willing to use it.

As Sister James, Ava Jane Markus comes across as incredibly naïve and innocent at the beginning of the play-maybe a little too much so. She doesn’t seem much older than the eighth-graders she’s teaching. But she’s in sharp contrast to Sister Aloysius, and of course she’s meant to be. (The fact is, she was so young and naïve-seeming in her first appearance I was prepared to find her thoroughly annoying, but my perception of the character, and the actress, changed as the play proceeded.) A solid performance.

Father Flynn, played by Brendan Murray, also stands in sharp contrast to Sister Aloysius. He’s young, friendly, accessible. You can see why the boys like him. Is there some kind of monster hiding under that smooth surface? It would be easy for the actor to convey that impression-but Murray avoids it. If it’s there, it’s hidden…and yet, somehow Murray leaves room for it in his interpretation of the character. In other words, I thought Murray nailed the character. (He also tossed in just a faint Bronx accent-nothing over the top, but enough to help place us in the play’s milieu.)

Finally, there’s Lisa Berry as Mrs. Muller. She has only one scene, but it’s a doozey, as she demonstrates some of the same inner strength as Sister Aloysius-except that Sister Aloysius is concerned about not only Donald but all the other boys in her school, present and future, while Mrs. Muller is focused like a laser beam on protecting just one boy, her son, and not just from one possibly over-friendly priest but from a world that is set up in so many ways to hurt him, for so many reasons. (It’s not just the colour of his skin that makes him an outsider.) Berry capturesthat mother-bear-protecting-her-cub vibe perfectly, yet in a way that ensures her character seems true to her time and place in society.

In other words, there’s not a weak performance in the bunch, and of course kudos must also go to the director, Andrew North, for helping the actors achieve such fine work.

Tell us about the set.

In a way, Doubt doesn’t need much of a set. You could do it in a black box with a table and two chairs and it would still work. But Globe hasn’t gone quite that minimalist.

Designer Elli Bunton has, in fact, created a gorgeous set. In one corner is an L-shaped platform on which Father Flynn stands for his two sermon-monologues. Just below that-appropriate both for staging purposes and because it also represents the hierarchy of the church that makes it difficult for Sister Aloysius to act on her suspicions-is a square dais on which sits the desk and chairs of Sister Aloysisus’s office. Finally, the main floor serves as the school hallway and the courtyard between the school and the sacristy, with a low, L-shaped bench in the corner opposite the two platforms. A painted stone pathway surrounds that part of the stage, and there are even a couple of patches of grass to suggest the garden, but the centerpiece of the set, which stretches from the courtyard up onto the office dais, is what looks like a mosaic floor such as you might find in a very old church, with the impassive visage of a saint of some kind, face partially eaten away by missing tiles, staring blankly up at heaven. It’s eye-catching enough you might expect it to be distracting, but it isn’t in the slightest,  and of course the metaphor of a saint whose face is cracking to reveal something else beneath suits the play perfectly.

What about the costumes?

As you’d expect, it’s not a costume-heavy show. The nuns are in severe black habits, hair hidden in black bonnets. Father Flynn has the coloured vestments he wears when he delivers his sermons, but otherwise he’s also in black-except for one scene when he’s coaching basketball, when he’s in ordinary gym clothes. Mrs. Muller has dressed nicely for her visit to the principal’s office, and her ordinary-for-1964-clothes, complete with hat and gloves, actually come as a bit of a shock because they are a reminder of when the play took place-a reminder that there’s a world outside the walls of the school where things are changing, a reminder driven home just as Mrs. Muller arrives when we see Sister Aloysius listening to news reports on a transistor radio.

You obviously like the show. How did the audience react?

They were engaged throughout. I should say that, although obviously it’s a very serious play, it’s also a very entertaining one-thanks again to the writer, John Patrick Shanley. There’s lots of warmth and humor in it, and at the end of the hour and a half-which flew by; it didn’t feel that long at all, always a good sign-the audience gave it a well-deserved and immediate standing ovation.

It’s a great play, a solid cast, and a terrific way for Globe to finish its 2008-2009 season-no “doubt” about it.


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