SALT LAKE CITY — The subtitle of John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play Doubt calls it “a parable.” At one point in the play, Father Flynn, a Catholic priest, is describing his style of sermonizing to Sister James, one of the nuns who teaches at the parish school. He explains that he frequently uses stories to illustrate a point he wants to make. When Sister James asks if his stories are true, he admits that they are not, adding that “truth makes for a bad story.”
Yet Doubt, which won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005, indicates that Father Flynn is mistaken. A parable may be fictional, yet still contain a sobering amount of truth. The two are not mutually exclusive. With the film Spotlight (about the Boston Globe journalists who wrote about the Catholic child sex abuse scandal in 2003) winning the Oscar for Best Picture just a few weeks ago and the prominence of feminism and racial tensions in current national discourse, a play that deals with obedience to patriarchy, gender dynamics, clerical child abuse, cover-ups, integration, and the nature of faith vs. doubt is as timely as ever. Utah Repertory Theater’s intimate and stirring production—with understated, organic direction by JC Carter and an outstanding cast—is a rare opportunity for Utah audiences to experience this exceptional piece of theatre.
In 1964, in a Catholic parish in the Bronx, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (played by Tracy Callahan) rules St. Nicholas School with an iron fist clutching a fountain pen. The young and guileless Sister James (Cyrie Janiece) confides in Sister Aloysius that she saw the parish priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Roger Dunbar), and the school’s first African American student, Donald Muller, in circumstances that could suggest an inappropriate relationship. With no real proof or authority over the clergy, Sister Aloysius nevertheless takes matters into her own hands to see that the priest is removed from his position.
Dunbar’s portrayal of Father Flynn deftly walks the high wire stretched between likability and suspicion. He keeps the connection to each taut, channeling them both at will with remarkable believability. For the play to work, the ambiguity of Father Flynn’s character must be embraced, and Dunbar’s calculating, yet sympathetic performance keeps every possibility on the table. For example, even as self-interest drives him to attempt to convince Sister James of his innocence, his appeals for compassion and kindness never come across as disingenuous. Still, Dunbar’s subtle, precise control of his facial expressions allow for at least one certainty: if nothing else, Father Flynn is constantly attempting to mask his own brokenness, whether its cause be doubt, sin, or persecution. In one telling moment, after his final clash with Sister Aloysius, he struggles to keep his composure, but the effects of his ordeal bleed out in a forceful, uneven aggression directed at the rotary dial of the telephone on her desk.
Dunbar’s Flynn faces a formidable adversary in Callahan’s Sister Aloysius. For one thing, she is responsible for the majority of the clever lines in the script, yet Callahan is careful to ensure that Sister Aloysius remain unamused with her own wit. More importantly, however, her characterization is as instrumental in maintaining the ambiguity around Father Flynn’s behavior as his own. Though Sister Aloysius is a tight-lipped authoritarian, Callahan takes pains to steer her clear of caricatured zealotry, which would too easily substantiate Flynn’s charges of unjust persecution.
Sister Aloysius’s concern for the school and its students needs to register as genuine, and if her methods sometimes appear harsh, the audience must believe that she came by them honestly. Fortunately, Callahan is more than up to the task. In addition to the touches of humanity written into the script (like a weakness for listening to the radio), the fine details of Callahan’s performance hint that Sister Aloysius is less unflappable than she lets on. Brief insights such as a well-timed, uncertain hand to the face or deep breaths after a confrontation successfully build up to the vulnerability she exhibits in the play’s final line—a line I found very moving because I absolutely believed it.
Despite being principal of the school, Sister Aloysius is acutely aware of how a woman’s place in the church hierarchy denies her any official authority to address her suspicions about Father Flynn. She comments on it frequently, lamenting to Sister James at one point that “men run everything.” In a microcosm of her situation, when Father Flynn pays her a visit in her office at the school, he takes his seat at Sister Aloysius’s own desk. However, for someone as acquainted with the intractability of traditional power structures as she is, she remains terribly naïve about the scope of the issues surrounding Donald Muller.
A visit from Donald’s mother pulls back the curtain to reveal just how little Sister Aloysius understands about Donald’s prospects for a better future and the perils of his situation. As Mrs. Muller, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin gives an extraordinary performance. Worried that Donald will end up a casualty of institutional crossfire, Mrs. Muller stands up to Sister Aloysius in defense of her son. She forces Sister Aloysius to confront her own privilege with some very uncomfortable truths about race and sexuality for a twelve-year-old African American boy at a white school in the 1960s. Though Mrs. Muller is in only one scene, the dramatic arc of the play rests on her shoulders and I was swept away by how effortlessly Darby-Duffin sustained it.
Janiece, as Sister James, put me on edge at first. She spoke with a particular rhythm that always ended on the same tone. Then, when she grew emotional or panicked, she spoke almost too quickly, to the detriment of her diction. Yet, as the play progressed, I began to perceive that these tendencies were much more pronounced in the presence of Sister Aloysius. Moreover, in the rare instances where one could say that Sister James is more at ease, they disappeared entirely and I was struck with the naturalness of Janiece’s line readings. These moments, free of tension, were a revelation, and I realized how honest such vocal idiosyncrasies were for a character who spends so much of the play in a state of constant trepidation.
Set designer Cara Pomeroy’s attention to details such as the transom window over Sister Aloysius’s office door, the backlight in Father Flynn’s stained glass window, or the shade of green on the floor of the stage—so typical of the linoleum tile in these kinds of institutions—successfully captures the well used atmosphere of an aging New York City parish school and feel right at home alongside Dunbar’s non-rhotic accent. The organ music in the opening scene at the church also contributes effectively to the atmosphere, but I suggest that the sound technician fade the house volume out at the end of the cue, after the music has ended, to eliminate the distracting pop that occurs when the tape hiss ends so abruptly. (Furthermore, though I am sure he doesn’t need to hear it from me, he should also avoid stopping the crow sound effect mid-caw and turning on the control room light during the performance.)
But these trivialities are hardly significant in the overall context of this tremendous production. Ultimately, what makes Doubt work so well is the deference that both the script and the actors pay to its title. Certainty does not equal truth. Truth does not equal answers. Truth does not make for a bad story, though certainty often does. Go experience the truth of Utah Rep’s Doubt while you can.