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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Laura Hitchcock
John Patrick Shanley's Doubt flowers from a conventional seed into an intricate vine whose tendrils go beyond did-he or didn't-he to nudge ramifications of faith, justification, and even the future, where we dwell in the dubious miasma of the invasion of Iraq. But there's nothing flowery about the exquisite clarity of this play. Unlike the heightened poetic language in the playwright's previous works, Doubt sets its parameters out in the black and white worn by the priest and nun whose duel this is.
The play begins with a sermon on doubt preached by charismatic young Father Flynn (Jonathan Cake) and ends with a recognition of doubt by Sister Aloysius (Linda Hunt), principal of the school where he teaches. Sister Aloysius suspects him of preying on boys, particularly the vulnerable Donald Muller, first Negro child to be admitted to this school. The year is 1964 and Shanley's themes are many, including, in his own words, "the birth of modern sensibility."
One version of this is demonstrated by Mrs. Muller (Patrice Pitman Quinn), Donald's mother, who values Father Flynn's attention and protection to her son, all the more because his own father and classmates disdain him. The play's fourth character, young teacher Sister James (Mandy Freund), struggles to understand Sister Aloysius, disputes her and represents the audience on both fronts.
The 90-minute play builds without intermission through a series of carefully crafted scenes to a conclusion, only to have the interpretation of that conclusion become as amorphous as the play's dilemma. There have been many plays and headlines about child abuse in the church but none has examined so many facets and probed with so crystal a scalpel.
Bolstering the play's dilemma are the warmth and charm of Father Flynn, projected with dynamic ingenuousness by Jonathan Cake. Flynn's character is juxtaposed against the reserved resolute Sister Aloysius. Linda Hunt makes the Sister as dry as the shrouded rosebushes in the convent garden and as convinced that her role requires her to be the opposite of a friend or family member. Although this was a more prevalent view in 1964, the belief that impersonality is a relationship of value is tested in therapeutic, pastoral and educational systems today.
The beauty of Shanley's characterization is that he finds the humanity in this nun. So does Hunt, though she understands that Sister Aloysius despises charm and never gives an inch in her defense of that integrity. Patrice Pitman Quinn plays Mrs. Muller with passionate brilliance and Mandy Freund interprets Sister James with spunky naivete.
Director Claudia Weill visualizes the distance and claustrophobia in the play. Gary L. Wissmann's scenic design has the dusty sepia tones of memory, underlined by Jeremy Pivnick's lighting which creates a place where it's always November.
Editor's Note: No doubt about it. This is the first time since this play's triumphant debut at Manhattan Theatre Club that it is being given a major production out of New York and without the actors who originated the roles. For a review of that production and it's cast (with comments to follow shortly on how it transferred to a larger Broadway house), go here.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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