Doubtby John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Brad Berridge.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Take the kids out for ice cream."
The nature of truth and the essence of doubt are the two poles on which the world of this play revolve. Set in The Bronx, a borough of New York City, its people are caught in the truths of both place and time. Kids are tough here and rough with anyone "soft" or suspicious. The Mullers have transferred their son out of public school and into the safer environment of a Catholic School, run by nuns. The resident priest, Father Flynn, often spouts aphorisms that smack of doubtful points of view on topics best left unaddressed. The school’s principal, Sister Aloysius, has a nature that makes her suspect the worst in everyone. The world, from her vantage point, is cruel and corrupt but avoidable if you put a stop to anything doubtful.
She suspects Father Flynn of impropriety. She thinks the Muller boy, the only black student, is the object of Flynn’s desire. She suspects a conspiracy and expects to stop it in its tracks. Her single-minded resolve, hung between the points of truth and doubt, pushes her over the limits of practical behavior. Ultimately what she destroys also destroys her confidence. She has doubts.
It is the oddness of scheduling that plagues me. Only a few weeks ago nuns cavorted in front me to raise funds to get their frozen, dead sisters out of the kitchen freezer in the musical "Nunsense" and now nuns work at the destruction of the human ego. Last week Tevye and his family were forced out of their homes in the years just before World War I in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," and another man, hiding from Nazis in the years after World War II, is cajoled out of his home by another holocaust survivor in "The Puppetmaster of Lodz." Our theaters do not talk to one another about their schedules, but here we are with four plays that touch one another, all within a month’s time. Belief systems are being challenged in similar ways in different styles for the same pre-summer audiences.
Berkshire Actors Theatre Company has taken up residence at the Berkshire Museum with two of John Patrick Shanley’s plays, "Doubt" and "Four Dogs and a Bone" which I reviewed last year. Of all the plays mentioned "Doubt" is the most peculiar, the most difficult in some ways. Tevye has his God to consult, the Puppetmaster has his puppets, but Sister Aloysius has only herself to rely upon. She is compelled to make her own decisions and impelled by her stubborn nature to eke out justice in her own way. Tevye has choices; Puppetman has his playwriting options; Aloysius has only her convictions. Unlike the others, she has only one course of action.
She walks the dangerous tight rope of morality.
Peggy Pharr Wilson is undertaking the role of Aloysius. She has chosen to play this single-minded soul with a hard shell that appears to be unbreakable. She never uses charm to soften the blow of what is to come and this single-note interpretation is both difficult to sustain and to bear. We know only a little bit about this nun’s life before the time-frame of the play and it is appealing to create our own back-story for her. But we cannot do that. We can only take what is given to us. Wilson’s portrayal of the woman is of a grudge-bearer who will stop at nothing to take revenge on a man for being a man who has his own insecurities. Wilson gives us a strong edition of this character and it is hard to take at times. Her final cry as she reaches the outer limit of her faith was hard to believe, hard to take.
Patrick White as Father Flynn is much more believable, and yet there seemed to be something totally wrong about his performance. He gives off the stench of righteousness but the perfume is wrong. He delivers sermons that preach the right things but he is unconvincing. When Flynn defends himself through anger, White, the actor, disappears into the character and there is a life happening on the stage. That is his best moment in the play, that moment when he disappears into Father Flynn. I just wish that this happened more often.
Clover Bell-Devaney as Sister James, the young nun who gives the principal her first glimpse into something wrong at the school, is too pretty and too sophisticated to convince us of her position in this play. James’s self-assurance is never shaken by Aloysius in this edition of the play. It should be and it must be. Yet in spite of the writing it never seemed to happen.
Mrs. Muller, the boy’s mother, is well-played by Alika Hope. Her scene in the principal’s office is very well played and without the usual emotional take on her son’s prurient interests. Hope plays down the dangers here, stresses the sweetness, hides her character’s shame at Mr. Muller’s actions by playing out the facts as expected reactions. There is an utter honesty about her performance and it is very effective.
Director Brad Berridge, in a program note, states that he cannot answer his own questions about the play and about the characters. He says that "after much thought, deliberation, and exhaustive research, I can honestly say, I have no idea." That may be the awkward root of the problems in this production. With no idea of whether this play answers the questions it presents he may not have been able to properly guide his cast through the thickness that surrounds them, through the dark passages of St. Nicholas School and its old-guard traditions. He may have had little influence without definite resolutions in mind. He, himself, may be caught between those two poles of truth and doubt. And this play needs a director to take all of this in hand. The strength of single-mindedness is hard to handle without a handle to hold.
Always an interesting experience, this edition of "Doubt" leaves its audience in doubt as to the success of this venture. There is some very good work here, but very little connection. Perhaps playing it for audiences, gauging reactions, listening for what is missing will bring these actors closer to the realities that need to be played. I hope so for they are a good company of actors who have chosen a very hard rod of a road on which to travel.
Patrick White & Clover Bell-Devaney; photo: Arianne Stuerzel
Peggy Pharr Wilson & Alika Hope; photo: Arianne Stuerzel
Doubt plays in repertoire with Four Dogs and a Bone (See next review, below, in this section) at the Berkshire Museum, located at 39 South Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 15. For information and tickets call the museum at 413-443-7171, ext. 10.