The titular doubt in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic play, now being given a rigorous yet nuanced treatment at Newport Theatre Arts Center, is not about whether the intense, charismatic Father Brendan Flynn (at this performance played by Director Eric Modyman; Upcoming: “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) is guilty of the ghastly crime which Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Della Lisi Kerr; “It’s Only a Play”) accuses him of committing.
It is not even the doubt that Sister Aloysius utters in the play’s heartbreaking final scene, over the moral institution to which she has committed her entire life. No, it’s even broader and more terrifying. It’s doubt about whether the social order we’ve claimed for ourselves — here represented by the reforms of Vatican II but far more far-reaching than that — has put us all in mortal peril, body and soul.
You may remember, in 1962 The Second Vatican Council revolutionized the Catholic Church in many ways: Where before the Church conducted its services in Latin, a language spoken only by the Priesthood and a few elite laymen, it was thereafter conducted in the common language of its people. Where before the priest had his back to the congregation during the Mass, he faced the people thereafter. Where before the priest was remote, authoritarian, and severe, afterward he was to be a man of the people, a friendly and pastoral figure.
In this play — set in 1964, months after the deaths of Pope John XXIII and the killing of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic President — Sister Aloysius represents the resistance. Although she is loyal to her vow of obedience, you can tell the new order rankles with her. She is principal of St. Nicholas elementary school, a mission she seems to consider akin to that of a Marine Drill Sergeant with a load of new recruits.
She is old school, in the sense that the Paleolithic era could be considered olden times. She does not allow ball-point pens because they are too easy to use; they encourage the students to laziness and they will write, she assures, “like monkeys.” She will not permit the children to sing “Frosty the Snowman” at the Christmas pageant, because it is a pagan song. After all, doesn’t he come to life after he receives a magic hat? And she terrorizes an eighth-grade teacher, Sister James (Victoria Leigh Serra; “Sylvia”), not because she is a bad instructor but because she is too good: her sparkling presentations distract the students from their own failings.
In all of this she is opposed by Father Flynn, who not only embraces the Church’s new openness but embodies it. Flynn is a powerful, empathetic preacher — the play opens with one of his sermons, in which he beautifully describes the dilemma of a sailor who sees the sky perfectly one night, and plots his course by it, but who begins to lose faith in his path as the sky is thereafter covered with clouds night after night, and in so doing allows his congregation to realize the universality of doubt. He is also a man with a sly and gentle wit; a mentor to the school’s sometimes rambunctious boys, and a good basketball coach. Sister James is one of many who love who he is and what he represents: the freedom to be their own best selves as they love and serve God, rather than living within Sister Aloysius’ rigid restrictions.
But there is a more immediate cause for Father Flynn to fall into Sister Aloysius’ crosshairs. Father Flynn took one of the eighth-graders — the school’s first African-American student — into the Rectory with him. And when the boy came back to Sister James’ class, he had a look of terror on his face, and the smell of alcohol on his breath. Sister Aloysius is convinced that something more is going on, and neither the priest’s plausible denials nor the disinterest of the boy’s mother (Roslynn Samone Glasco; “Shakespeare in the Garden”) in any process which might bring her son’s adolescent sexual inclinations to light deter her from her resolution to expose Father Flynn and get him removed from the school.
That said, Ms. Kerr’s performance as the aggressive school principal is downright scary. Her sharp features are constantly at work. There’s a contemplative, calculating look in her eyes throughout the show, as if she sees right through you. Her intensity in movement and severity in diction are definitely on an entirely different level than the rest of the cast.
First of the 2022-2023 NTAC season of plays, this drama is a lean 90 minutes with no intermission…and it doesn’t waste a single one of them. The well-being of a child is the central conflict in this briskly-paced work, but while keeping the audience guessing whether or not Flynn is guilty, Shanley also explores the Roman Catholic Church’s privileged, protected positions as a male in the ultimate “old boys club."
Ms. Serra is terrific, incidentally, as the naïve teacher, Sister James, a character who struggles with the conflict between her love for the change Father Flynn represents and her obligations to protect a twelve-year-old boy from him. Ms. Serra’s emotional outpouring during her evaluation with the principal was indeed a believable scene — reactive, vulnerable and conveyed with appropriate subtlety.
Ms. Glasco also has a distinct spin to her performance as the child’s mother, who has a brief but powerful scene with Sister Aloysius. Hyper-articulate, impeccably dressed and coiffed, her Mrs. Muller represents precisely the sort of African-American mother who would have sent her child to a private Catholic school in 1964. When she slips into non-standard English — as Shanley’s script requires — it takes on an ominous edge, as though she is reminding the good sister that she has seen rough times and has surmounted them. It does not happen often, but in Ms. Glasco’s rendition of Mrs. Muller, Sister Aloysius has met her match.
Which circles me back to the character of Sister Aloysius herself. Traditionally, Sister Aloysius is played cast-iron, furiously dismembering and dismissing whoever dares to oppose her. Ms. Kerr’s predominant characteristic, however, is not rage or arrogance but frustration; she knows she is fighting a losing battle and it is clear that she does not have a taste for lost causes. Her voice breaks, and you can see her apprehension.
When Father Flynn throws out one of his corrective nostrums, a shocked look passes over her face for a millisecond. When Sister James tells her that everyone fears her, she takes in the information not with satisfaction, but with a sort of weary acceptance. As Ms. Kerr plays her, Sister Aloysius does not aspire to be hated or feared; she acquiesces to those reactions as a consequence of her fidelity to her principles, which she believes were given to her by God. It makes the final scene, and her confession to Sister James, as powerful as it can possibly be.
NEWPORT THEATRE ARTS CENTER PRESENTS, DOUBT: A PARABLE BY JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY, Directed by Eric Modyman; Produced by Leslie Bailey and Floyd Harden; Stage Managed by Marty Miller; Sets by Jim Huffman; Costumes by Tom Phillips and Larry Watts; Lighting and Sound by Josh Serrano; Playing September 16th through October 9th. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00PM, Sundays at 2:00PM. 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. For Tickets: https://ntaconline.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Chuck Weinberg