John Patrick Shanley sets the events at Doubt’s New York City Catholic elementary school in 1964—and not just so he can drop in a reference to the recently deceased Catholic president John F. Kennedy. Those familiar with the timeline of the Roman Catholic Church know this as a pivotal moment in its history, when the Second Vatican Council began the challenging process of dragging the church into the modern world, with Pope John XXIII urging pastoral care to focus on employing “the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity.
So don’t be thrown by the fact that Doubt touches on the hot-button issue of pederast priests. True, much of the action surrounds the suspicions of St. Nicholas School’s principal, Sister Aloyisius (Greta Lambert), that Father Flynn (Jeff Talbott) may have initiated an “inappropriate relationship” with one of the school’s 8th-grade students. Complicating the matter further is the fact that the student in question is the school’s first black student. Is Father Flynn taking advantage of the alientated boy behind closed doors? Or is he merely providing comfort to the outcast?
Shanley establishes the framework for his argument in a conversation between Sister Aloysius and one of the school’s young new teachers, Sister James (Shannon Koob), over appropriate teaching methodology. The young sister favors an enthusiastic, warm approach; her superior insists on a more distant, discipline-based style. Their debate echoes the ideas with which the Catholic Church was struggling at the time, and which still inspire so much contention between people of all faiths: Is the purpose of a religion to bend people toward a specific path of righteousness, or to act primarily and essentially in a spirit of love?
The answer might seem to divide cleanly along fundamentalist vs. secular lines, but Shanley complicates the matter through the real-world implications of the plot’s sexual abuse angle. His text sets up as a parallel to the “mercy vs. severity” question one of “innocence vs. experience,” and with it he turns Doubt into something exponentially more complex. We learn that Sister Aloysius is a war widow who took her vows late in life, and whose perspective on the world is one of understanding its evils intimately. Sister James, meanwhile, is an inexperienced young woman who views the world through a lens of goodness. The argument over Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence becomes one of when vigilance born of knowledge crosses over into paranoia—and on the opposite side, when a purely optimistic humanism can result in ignoring a potential tragedy in the making. It’s a Beatles-era story with tendrils creeping into the post-9/11 world: When does the cost to our souls of eternal suspicion exceed the cost to our lives of giving the benefit of the doubt?
Pioneer Theatre Company’s production, under the direction of Martin Platt, keeps a focus on the performances and the text through simple staging. Lambert provides the standout performance as Sister Aloyisius, whose unshakeable conviction in her own beliefs emerges from a place of good but perhaps misguided intentions. William Barclay’s set and Michael Gilliam’s lighting design capture the school’s chilly leaf-strewn courtyard as a place where the glow of the church’s authority hovers over all. In a taut, tight 90 minutes, Shanley’s play unfolds as a singularly human drama.
In an almost too-perfect coincidence, the opening night performance of Doubt was delayed briefly by a fire alarm that turned out to be caused by a fog machine elsewhere in the Pioneer Memorial Theatre building. Would we rather have an alarm that goes off more often than is absolutely necessary if it provides greater security? The title of Doubt describes the play as “a parable,” and Father Flynn at one point observes to Sister James that “the truth makes a bad sermon.” Father Flynn’s ultimate guilt or innocence remains unclear, forcing us to ponder when authority matters more than love, and when we need to assume there’s fire from just the faintest hint of smoke.
DOUBT @ Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, Through Nov. 17. 581-6961