Doubts About "Doubt"

By Geary Danihy

“He died.”

Those two words make up one of the keys to understanding the character of Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal, or dragon at the gates, of St. Nicholas, a parochial school in the Bronx, and the lead character in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Doubt,” which is MTC MainStage’s current production.

The ‘he” is Sister Aloysius’s husband, killed in World War II, and the line can be delivered in many different ways. As spoken by Katie Sparer, it is devoid of any emotion, any feeling, any sense of loss. It is just a fact – he died – but there is so much more behind the fact, for we must assume that her husband’s death was part of what drove the woman to find shelter and comfort in becoming a nun.

“He died,” and perhaps the only way I can deal with this loss, or maybe deny the depth of the loss, is to give myself up to an organization, a bureaucracy that prides itself on its rules and regulations – the Catholic Church. The violent, sensual, confusing world has taken away my husband, so I will turn my back on this world and all of its conundrums and enticements and embrace manila folders that contain the clear, undisputed facts and figures that quantify St. Nicholas’s students.

For “Doubt” to work, Sister Aloysius has to be more than the Wicked Witch of the West dressed in a nun’s habit. Unfortunately, under the direction of Kevin Connors, MTC’s executive artistic director, that is just about all Sparer gives us. Her thin fingers wiggle (“And your little dog too!”) and her pale blue eyes stare off into the distance as she contemplates her next ploy; this is more caricature than character.

If the play’s last line is to resonate we have to believe that behind Sister Aloysius’s stern words and iron-clad accusations are human hesitancies and well-masked frailties. If the audience is to buy the sister’s after-action claim that she has doubts about what she has done, then there has to be flickers of said doubt along the way. Without them, her final words are merely self-serving.

Playing the yang to Sister Aloysius’s yin is Father Brendan Flynn (Jim Schilling), a priest who wants to try a little tenderness with regard to the schooling of the young. The major question in “Doubt” is the nature of this priest’s relationship with some of the boys at the school, and Schilling competently walks the fine line between “does he or doesn’t he,” yet given all of the psycho-sexual undertones, the confrontation between the nun and the priest in this production seems oddly dispassionate.

This is especially true in the final duel between the two main characters. Here Schilling’s tendency to hunt for words (and occasionally drop a line) becomes a bit frustrating. The battle should have a definite build to it, starting off with rifle shots and ending with the rat-a-tat of machine guns, but the pace is broken by Schilling’s delivery – he fires one too many blanks and the rising action stutters.

Oddly enough, it is the play’s two supporting characters who provide what true intensity there is in this production. Marty Bongfeldt’s quite believable Sister James is a nice blend of naïveté, compassion and defiance, and Lynette R. Freeman steals the show as Mrs. Muller, the mother of one of the boys Sister Aloysius believes Father Flynn has meddled with. Freeman is on stage for less than 10 minutes but during that time the production shifts into high gear as she defends her son and assails the good sister’s approach to a delicate and possibly devastating situation. Her stellar performance unintentionally highlights what is missing in much of the play’s other 80 minutes.

There are also several staging problems – or distractions – that take away from the show’s impact. The first, given the configuration of MTC’s stage, is perhaps unsolvable. Both sisters are attired in full nun regalia, which means they both wear wimples (a head covering that hides all but the face). Given that much of the blocking for Sister Aloysius has her stage left – and often turning to face characters to her right -- audience members sitting house right are often treated to a faceless figure totally draped in black, an obsidian chess piece from which emerges lines of dialogue. Lose contact with the actor’s eyes – or face -- lose contact with the actor.
A second point is more of a question: why is there a clock on one of the walls running in real time? The clock marks off the hour and a half it takes for the play to run its course, while the play itself covers events occurring over many days. Why have the clock up on the wall in the first place?

For those who have never seen “Doubt,” MTC’s production can be considered a decent introduction to Shanley’s complex yet flawed drama. Those familiar with the plot who come to see this particular cast’s take on the characters will come away, by and large, less than satisfied.

“Doubt” runs through Sunday, April 25. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.MTCMainStage.org       

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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