John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is a slim play with a large concept. Actually, it’s not even called a play, it’s called a “parable” and this is not just a matter of semantics. As a play, Doubt seems to be lacking something (although it’s not lacking a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award) but it is a well-fleshed-out parable about uncertainty. It might also be a history play with a very specific agenda: Don’t blame the nuns for what the bishops covered up.
Shanley’s play is set in 1964, a period when the United States was reeling from assassination shock. The main characters are two nuns and a rather liberal priest who may or may not have had an “improper relationship” with a boy. Complicating matters is the fact that the youth is the first and only African-American boy in the school. I think you can guess where this is going — and it goes directly there without giving you the satisfaction of a Perry Mason-ish confession scene. This is where the play gets either very dumb or very clever, because despite all the furrowed brows and preaching about doubt, it’s hard not to leap to the presumption of priestly guilt once the accusation is made. This is 2007 and in a dramatic trial about a priest who may have done something wrong, the burden of proof is on the defense.
The Church Bistro & Theatre has assembled a solid team for the prosecution and the defense. Tony Ciaravino manages to use all of our prejudices to his advantage in his portrayal of Father Flynn. He’s warm, witty, and likeable, and compared to the rather dour Sister Aloysius (Rita Crosby) he seems like a model of enlightened faith. Father Flynn is Vatican II, while Sister Aloysius probably thinks Vatican 1.0 wasn’t strict enough. Shanley stacks the deck against Sister Aloysius (she hates Frosty the Snowman) so that we have to fight to appreciate her stand against the more affable Flynn.
Crosby is at her best in the final confrontation with Father Flynn and in the aftermath when she reveals the light behind her character’s stony façade. Ciaravino’s brilliance is in his layering of darkness behind the smiles and clipped speech of the first act that make his turn and tonal shift in the second act believable. Eva Laporte’s innocent Sister James seems only a hair away from singing “Climb Every Mountain,” and Cassandra Small rounds out the cast with a passionate scene as the mother of the boy who may have been “interfered with.”
The set is as good as the play needs (there are obvious benefits to having a renovated church as your theater) and Diane Malone’s direction is subtly effective in both timing and tone and in the careful use of physicality in a play with precious little action.
“Doubt,” says Shanley in his preface, “requires more courage than conviction … because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite” — an important point when the certainty bandwagon always has the loudest band and the biggest wagon. A little bit of doubt can keep us from making mortal errors, or, as Sister Aloysius says, “Maybe we’re not supposed to sleep so well.” Makes you wish Sister Aloysius was running in ’08, doesn’t it?
Doubt: A Parable
6:30pm dinner, 8pm show Fri & Sat;
Noon brunch, 2pm show Sun
$47.95 dinner & show;
$28 show only
Church Bistro and Theatre
1150 S. Alamo