If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize Winner “Doubt” in Westport
Currently one of the country’s most frequently produced plays, John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” is now on the boards at Westport’s Music Theatre of Connecticut. You can understand the popularity. This is an efficient, four-character, 90 minute Pulitzer Prize winner with a timely topic (church abuses) and plenty of mystery. The play is an almost-perfect model of construction with a quartet of roles that appear actor-proof. And it’s always welcome to see MTC branch out of their musical mode to tackle a play as well written as “Doubt”.
Set in the Bronx circa 1964 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church and school, “Doubt” charts the struggle between two unmovable combatants: Sister Aloysius, the unbending principal of the school and Father Flynn, the progressive priest of St. Nicholas and Sister’s superior. When the nun becomes convinced that Flynn is abusing one of his altar boys, the stage is set for a battle royale between two formidable players. Caught in the crossfire are two other characters: Sister James, a novice nun who is torn between her loyalty to Sister Aloysius and her admiration for Father Flynn and Mrs. Muller, the African-American mother of the boy in question.
Casting is key in any production of “Doubt” and at MTC there is a single stand-out performance. Lynnette R. Freeman, featured in only one scene (but what a scene!) as Mrs. Muller, brings dramatic passion to her revealing conversation with Sister Aloysius (a forceful Katie Sparer). Ms. Freeman is a powerhouse who is sorely missed when she leaves the stage. Ms. Sparer, a gifted actress, projects Sister Aloysius’ fierce righteousness effectively even if the performance seems a little one-note by final curtain. More colors and shading would have benefited the character.
Marty Bongfeldt lacks the requisite innocence for the young novice and she appears more a contemporary of Sparer’s than her junior. Jim Schilling, seen to good advantage in previous musicals at MTC, never really suggests the kind of youthful priest who took charge with new ideas and purpose after Vatican II. Line problems were also evident on opening night and his final confrontation with Sparer was unevenly matched.
The tiny MTC stage is hard-pressed to accommodate the three settings required for the play. Designed by David Heuvelman, Sister’s office bleeds illogically into the garden set located in a small corner of the stage. It’s unfortunate that the play’s finale in the garden is not easily witnessed by a portion of the audience. The same is true for two pulpit scenes squeezed into the theatre’s entranceway.
Director Kevin Connors has staged some effective sequences even when hampered by the limited space. Costumer Diane Vanderkroef provided fine period clerical garb and, for Mrs. Muller, a perfectly tailored suit with an eye to the Kennedy era. In the end, however, it is credit to John Patrick Shanley that this “Doubt” still managed to exert its powerful spell even under lesser circumstances.
"Doubt” continues at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through April 25th. For further information and tickets reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers on April 21, 2010.