Doubt – Review by Tom Holehan

The Westport Playhouse is now back for in-house, live stage performances and they’ve selected one of the best plays in recent years to celebrate its reopening. “Doubt”, John Patrick Shanley’s provocative look at the Catholic Church and its scandalous history of abuse, is now on the boards in Westport and proves to remain a singular, strong drama that should stimulate conversation for days after viewing.

Set in 1964 at a Bronx Catholic Church and school, “Doubt” is dominated by the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius (Betsy Aidem), who begins to suspect something off about the Parish’s new young priest, Father Flynn (Eric Bryant). She probes his relationship with the male students mostly through information she gleans from Sister James (Kerstin Anderson), a novice nun who is torn between her duty to the principal and her fondness for Flynn.

Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Doubt” is a well-constructed battle-of-wills played out without intermission for a taut 75 minutes. I have seen the play many times, including the Meryl Street film version in 2008, and it still has the power to challenge and keep one riveted throughout a tense and suspenseful story. Is Sister Aloysius vindictive and crazy? Is Father Flynn guilty or just misunderstood? No matter which side you choose, you will still have your doubts which is very much Shanley’s point.

The four person cast at Westport, which also includes Sharina Martin as the African-American parent of one of Father Flynn’s boys, are uniformly excellent. The characters are firmly grasped and inhabited by each actor and the fireworks are justly delivered in the final confrontation between priest and nun. Aidem is a powerhouse as Sister Aloysius, a determined spokesperson for conformity and following the rules. Bryant’s Father Flynn has the easy charisma to make you believe and sympathize with everything he says. Miller’s one potent scene is charged with emotion and Anderson exudes warmth as a young woman not prepared for the position she is forced into. This is a very solid company of actors.

There are a few caveats I must lay at director David Kennedy’s feet, however. The decision to take the play’s subtitle, “A Parable”, fairly literally has the actors reading stage directions before each scene. They are also seen pre-curtain in street clothes preparing for their roles. This all just seems odd instead of revealing, a chance for a director to needlessly put his own stamp and “gussy up” a script that has been produced numerous times. The scenic design by Charlie Corcoran has some handsome set pieces, but it is all spread out far too wide especially for scenes that demand more intimacy. I also couldn’t understand the miming of some props (rosebush, doors) or the reasoning behind moving Sister Aloysius’s desk to a different position for each scene. To show us various angles? Like a movie? Not necessary.

But this production of “Doubt”, with its gifted cast, still remains a terrific contemporary drama that escalates and devastates until you are left breathless at curtain. At Westport, they have done the play proud.

“Doubt” continues at the Westport Playhouse through November 21. For further information visit: www.westportplayhouse.org or call the theatre box office: 203.227.4177. Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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