"Doubt" at MTC MainStage

By David A. Rosenberg

If “Doubt” was shocking when it was first produced in 2004, it’s even more so now that scandals have reached not just the door of the Vatican, but the throne of St. Peter itself. At Music Theater of Connecticut, the play and its puzzles remain as tantalizing as ever. Although not a first-class production of this strong drama, enough provocations come through to make audiences not only try to fit pieces together but discuss and argue afterwards.

John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama concerns the face-off between vitriolic Sister Aloysius and empathetic Father Flynn, she the school principal, he the pastor of St. Nicholas church in the Bronx. The fur flies when she accuses him of attempting to seduce a young boy. Whether he has done so or not, whether his loving attentions to a lonely 12-year-old are altruistic or not, whether she has a personal vendetta against the priest or not, are some of the questions Shanley leaves hanging.

Taking place in 1964, the year that Pope John threw open the church’s windows to let in light and air, “Doubt” deals not only with pedophilia, power and the role of women but the kinds of accusations that recall the Salem Witch Trials and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

Sister Aloysius considers herself a traditionalist, strict to the point of being tyrannical. Whatever progress Pope John tried to inaugurate she ignores and labels “secular.” Having been married before taking her vows (her husband was killed in World War II), one might wonder what kind of marriage she had. Certainly, there are hints of deprivations, of past frustrations, even of self-hatred.

Those frustrations turn into what Father Flynn labels “intolerance” and a sense of entitlement. “The children and parents should see us as members of their family,” he says, “rather than emissaries from Rome.” Yet male-centered hierarchy is not the only problem. Her adherence to blind tradition, to running the school like a prison, works against his desire to see the church’s role as humanitarian.

Yet the play is more complex than a joust between opposites. Especially startling is the scene between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy Father Flynn supposedly tried to seduce. What we learn about her son and the family dynamics that threaten his future induces anger about the sister’s inflexibility. Significantly, the Mullers are African-American, with the son the only black in the school.

Shanley couches his ideas in metaphors (his full title is “Doubt: A Parable”): plants must be tended and protected, a cawing crow presages doom and offstage illnesses and beatings indicate what the “real world” is like, a world  corrupted by snakes in the garden. The symbolism allows the playwright a cover for not stacking the deck since Sister Aloysius also has her doubts. Indeed, the play is “dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others. . . . Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?” “Many,” just not this one, pointing up life’s ambivalences.

Shanley also pits Sister Aloysius against younger, innocent Sister James. Where the former is intellectual and rigid, the latter is emotional and good-hearted but also, in context, confused. She is the fulcrum between past (Aloysius) and future (Flynn) but too insecure to take action. As antidote to strict, unyielding, unambiguous discipline, she displays a love for learning – which means, as well, a love for questioning -- that she tries to instill in her students

MTC’s cramped space emphasizes the vise-like constrictions of a repressive institution.  As directed by Kevin Connors and acted by Katie Sparer as Sister Aloysius, Jim Schilling as Father Flynn and Marty Bongfeldt as Sister James, the very air in this Bronx school is stifling.

The evening doesn’t truly take off until that powerful confrontation scene between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller, thanks to an overwhelming performance by Lynnette R. Freeman in the latter role. Rising from fear and abjection to strength and dignity, Freeman embodies the human cost of rigidity.

Although Sister James leaves for a brief time to visit her ill brother, only Mrs. Muller exists in an outside world of ambiguity and moral relativism, where the one certainty is uncertainty. It is she who looks to the future. “You accept what you gotta accept and you work with it,” she says. “That’s the truth I know.”

 

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