AU’s spring play, Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley is about so much more than a vague lack of certainty. It is about where our questions come from and where they take us.
The play takes place in 1964 in the St. Nicholas Church School, a fictional private Catholic school in the Bronx, where the kind, progressive and popular Father Flynn comes in conflict with the severe, mistrustful and rigid Sister Aloysius.
Though already suspicious of Flynn’s demeanor, Aloysius enlists the help of the young, impressionable Sister James to confront him when she discovers he met one on one with Donald Muller, the school’s first African American student. Hurt and offended by the implication that he may have had an inappropriate encounter with a student, particularly one as vulnerable as Donald Muller, Flynn denies James and Aloysius’ accusations and gives his own alibi.
Though Sister Aloysius insists that she “has her certainty” on what took place between the priest and the student, her doubt, and that of James, her compatriot, only increases.
Does she doubt Flynn’s motives for reaching out to Muller only because she dislikes Flynn’s more liberal views? Is Flynn genuine or only a gifted liar? Why does Muller himself say nothing about it? Because nothing happened or because he is afraid to speak out against Flynn?
The play covers the time span of only a few weeks but provokes enough thought to cover several decades of conversation, which is why, more than ten years later, it is still being produced all around the world.
Though the play’s main focus is on the uncertainty of what took place—if anything more than a talking to—between Flynn and Donald Muller, John Patrick Shanley’s brilliant writing points out all the other social conventions that further complicate the issue. He questions the patriarchal hierarchy of the church—Aloysius harbors bitterness that her autonomy and authority as an educator are constrained by her being a woman.
He comments on the necessity of doubt and questioning in faith—Flynn famously asserts that “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”
He looks into the struggles of minorities—Muller is mistreated by his Italian- and Irish-American classmates and his mother enrolls him at St. Nicholas just to get him into a better school system.
Aloysius’ subordinate role in the church and school as a woman, the lack of tangible proof, Muller’s potential willingness to go through abuse just to be able to go to a decent high school—many factors (including more that can’t be spoiled here) add barriers between the truth and the characters and between the truth and the audience, and the structure of the show encourages audiences to make up their own mind about what might have really happened well after the final black out.
The audience has quite an intimate relationship with the cast in AU’s production. Doubt continues the recent AU practice of seating audiences on the Byrum stage, but this time the production is fully in the round with the audience encircling the stage on all four sides. The subtly and hauntingly designed stage is a simple raised wooden platform with a Plexiglas cross cut into the center. Above, a flying buttress completes the room and feathers hung from the fly space fill the area over the audience.
With the audience so close, the talent present on stage can be fully appreciated. Senior Natalie Pridemore plays Sister Aloysius, her third lead role this year after Mama Rose in Gypsy and Ms. Todd in The Old Maid and the Thief, and if you’ve been following this year’s mainstage season you can see the impressive breadth of characters Ms. Pridemore can play, as her nuanced and understated Aloysius is unrecognizable from the brash Rose and oblivious Ms. Todd.
Freshman Connor Thompson plays Father Flynn in what is also his third show this year. Thompson does not waste his time in the spotlight, and despite his relative inexperience, rehearsal previews bode well for his lead debut next weekend.
Isabelle Yost, playing Sister James, holds her own in this, her second AU show and her first principal role on Byrum Stage. Her ability to listen and respond to the energy of her scene partners makes her performances engaging and interesting.
Freshman Pfalin Burton makes her AU debut as the strong-but-loving Mrs. Muller, and though not a performance major like the rest of the cast, her work with director David Coolidge and assistant director Kayla Brandt shows in rehearsal.
In short, this is a big show disguised as a small one, for behind the small cast, intimate staging and short run—April 6th through 9th—lies deeper themes and conversations that will stick with audiences forever.
Students, faculty and staff can receive two free tickets to the play with an ID.