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|May 1-7, 2008
Playwright John Patrick Shanley and the Denver Center enroll in Catholic school
by Gary Zeidner
Anyone familiar with John Patrick Shanley’s plays knows that Shanley adores picking at the scabs of our societal wounds. While often replete with dark humor, the backbone of most of Shanley’s plays is tense drama usually centered around some significant, hot button issue. (Proving that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, this thoughtful social commentator has also given the world screenplays for the oddball comedy Joe Versus the Volcano and the mainstream Crichton actioner, Congo, but I digress.)
The last Shanley play I saw was Dirty Story, the metaphorical exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a 9 1/2 Weeks-style psycho-sexual relationship between a rather twisted man and woman. The Denver Center Theatre Company did an excellent job bringing that play to life in all of its caricaturistic yet insightful glory. Now, the DCTC presents Shanley’s Pulitzer and Tony award-winning follow up, Doubt.
With Doubt, Shanley sets out to explore the nature of uncertainty, specifically as it relates to matters of belief and faith. How does doubt, in different circumstances, either strengthen or diminish certainty? He sets his story in a Catholic school in New York City in 1964. Given that Shanley spent time in a Catholic school in New York during that time, it is no surprise that the characters and their dialogue ring exceedingly true.
Every character in Doubt deals with his or her misgivings in their own way. Sister Aloysius (Jeanne Paulsen), the principal of the school, conquers her doubts about whether one of her church’s priests is molesting the young boys in her charge with a fierce combination of historically based belief and empirical fact-finding. Younger and far less experienced, Sister James (Nisi Sturgis) faces doubts both about the priest’s guilt and about Sister Aloysius’ motives from a position of fear and confusion. Her sense of relief when any of her doubts are dispelled is palpable. The priest in question, Father Flynn (Sam Gregory), uses his standing in the church and his easy way with people to address the doubts about his fitness to tend to Jesus’ flock — particularly its little, male lambs. And Mrs. Muller (Kim Staunton), the mother of the boy allegedly being abused, surprises everyone with the nature of her doubts and the unusual mental and emotional positions to which they lead her.
The Ricketson Theatre where Doubt plays is one of the more intimate theaters at the Denver Center. Scenic Designer Vicki Smith uses the Ricketson’s small size to her advantage. Her set design draws the audience into the offices and grounds of the St. Nicholas Catholic school and church until one can almost feel the rough texture of the red brick walls of the courtyard or smell the lingering odor of decades of cold sweat from students facing the stern gaze of Principal Aloysius. Little touches like the dried leaves on the ground and the period, green metal filing cabinets in the principal’s office are the icing on the cherry.
Excellent costuming by Bill Black and superb sound design by Kimberly Fuhr (I particularly enjoyed her use of various sound effects to smooth the scene changes) complement Smith’s work on the set. The actors’ efforts match those of the crew. The always enjoyable Gregory accomplishes the difficult task of playing a man who could be either villain or victim. He gets many laughs with his impeccable comic timing and delivery, but there is a menace below the surface of his smiling priest that he keeps in exquisite balance for the length of the play.
Paulsen’s Sister Aloysius is so spot on that I believe the accounts I’ve heard of former Catholic school students in the audience stifling their laughter under her gaze. Staunton only gets one scene in which to flex her dramatic muscle, and she uses it to her best advantage. Though some of her character’s revelations may strain credulity, she delivers them believably. Finally, Sturgis takes a role that could easily be played as a one-note Pollyanna and fleshes it out much more completely.
Make no mistakes, Doubt is a heavy play. It provokes thought and asks hard questions all the way to its ambiguous end. Due to its focus — and in spite of the outstanding work by the DCTC — it will not be for everyone, but if you’re reading this and wondering if it is for you, it probably is.
On the Bill:
Doubt plays through May 17 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1050 13th St., Denver, 303-893-4100.
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