The great thing about Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s slender but effective drama about child abuse in the church, is that our sympathies – even more, our convictions about what actually happens in the play – can change, depending on the production.
Shanley, you see, gives us just enough information to reinforce our own conclusions – but they can go in either direction. Some will believe that Father Flynn is guilty of child abuse, and that Sister Aloysius’ crusade against him is justified, even holy. Others will view the Sister as a arrogant and overconfident, ready to ruin a priest’s career based only on her unsubstantiated intuition. And there is, of course, a large gray area between those two poles.
Doubt, a 90-minute play for four actors, may seem simple, but it’s deftly constructed and rich in details. Shanley sets the action in 1964, when the U. S. is still shattered by the Kennedy assassination, and also fearful about the threat posed by “Red China.” The message here is clear: There’s a national sense of destabilization, even paranoia – and potentially, it can also cloud individual judgment. Near the end of Doubt, a previously unseen character – Mrs. Muller, mother of the boy at the center of the story – makes us reconsider everything.
When I saw the original Broadway production, I drew one conclusion (which was not, by the way, the same conclusion my companion drew), which derived in part on my reaction to Cherry Jones’ bold, calculatedly uningratiating performance as Sister Aloysius. I had a very different sense from the movie, this time responding to Meryl Streep’s more likeable Sister (and also more put off by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s creepy Father Flynn).
At Lantern, I had yet another reaction. Kathryn MacMillan’s production simmers rather than boils, which is both good and bad. It avoids melodrama (an easy trap with this play), but it also doesn’t find all the nuances. Still, the wonderful Mary Martello, suppressing her natural ebullience, is always compelling – this is a poker-faced Sister Aloysius, who really seems to listen. By contrast, Ben Dibble (as Father Flynn) is a bit too quick to flash his boyish charm and easy smile. (What’s under all that, we wonder?) There’s an excellent supporting performance by Lisha McKoy as Mrs. Muller.
If you’ve never seen Doubt, here’s your chance – you’ll be thinking about it for days afterward. And if you know the play (or think you know it), Lantern’s production may make you question your conclusions.
Through Feb. 15, Lantern Theater at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts., www.lanterntheater.org