Father Brendan Flynn (Cassidy Brown) is a man who likes to tell stories, which he does every Sunday at St. Nicholas church in the Bronx, and through August 10, 2008, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, where TheatreWorks is presenting John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, DOUBT, A Parable. The 90-minute, intermission-less production is uniformly excellent, from the clever and effective staging by Tom Langguth, to the very strong performances by the play's four fine actors, who, I'm told, were primarily directed by TheatreWorks dramaturg, Vickie Rozell, even though TheatreWorks artistic director, Robert Kelley, shares the credit in the program, although I have grave doubts that this rumor is actually true.
That's what it feels like to doubt and to be doubted -- neither is pleasant. Which is to say, go see this play.
As DOUBT opens, Flynn is preaching to his congregation about the virtues of doubt. "Doubt," he tells his 1964-era, Irish and Italian flock, "can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty." JFK, our nation's first and last Catholic president, had recently been assassinated. Pope John, who began the process of making the Mass more accessible to parishioners by, among other things, allowing the congregation to recite its prayers in English instead of Latin, had died a few months before. In short, Flynn's audience is suffering from what he characterizes as group despair. Which is not to say that their situation is hopeless: When you are lost, he consoles them, take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.
Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Kimberly King) is the polar opposite of the warm-hearted, compassionate Father. The principal of the church's school, Sister Aloysius is a woman of extreme moral rectitude, who looks at a ballpoint pen and sees a pagan idol to the sin of sloth. Her intimidating, no-nonsense office is "decorated" with a photograph of His Holiness. Feared by students and colleagues alike, she believes the world is a hard and heartless place, a cesspool bursting at the seams with evil.
If Sister Aloysius's paranoia is acute, it is grounded in experience -- she lost her husband in World War II. So when one of her teachers, the deferential Sister James (Kristin Stokes), stops by her office for a meeting, Sister Aloysius makes it her mission to shake the bunny rabbits and puppy dogs out of James's idealistic young head. In fact, Sister Aloysius wants Sister James to keep an eye on Father Flynn because Aloysius has doubts about him, specifically regarding the propriety of his relationships with some of the school boys. Innocent that she is, Sister James is taken aback by Sister Aloysius's suspicions. James is clearly infatuated with Father Flynn, so much so that at one point Sister Aloysius interrupts her gushing with a curt "You'd trade anything for a warm look." When all is said and done, wouldn't most of us?
No doubt the back and forth between the two women had some audience members squirming in their seats, as if THEY were being given the third degree by Aloysius and not the wide-eyed James. But King's nasal monotone is almost too spot-on a caricature of the classic penguin. The Aloysius that King conjures has a keen sense of humor, and although no one would dare call King's creation a softy, it would have been interesting to see the character played with a bit more menace. That said, King and Stokes make a good team, which in this case is more than enough.
Sister Aloysius is not the only one at the church who likes to play the mentor, taking selected individuals under her wing. Between sermons, Father Flynn is the school's basketball coach, which gives him the opportunity to expose his young charges to his beliefs about everything from the length and cleanliness of one's fingernails to the ways in which one must deceive one's adversary when preparing for a shot at the foul line. No coincidence, I'm sure, the lecture on deception, which, when added to his occupation as a teller of tales, quickly coalesce into an unsettling pattern. Could that crazy penguin be right?
We find out soon enough when Father Flynn is summoned to the principal's office for a meeting with Sisters Aloysius and James to discuss the upcoming Christmas pageant. Flynn believes the songs performed at the pageant should be expanded to include tunes parishioners are hearing on their radios, songs like "Frosty the Snowman," which both James and Flynn love but Aloysius thinks encourages a belief in the dark arts (her objection is that a magic hat makes Frosty come to life). Carefully, Aloysius steers the conversation to the subject of a boy named Donald, the school's only black student who, James claims, returned to her classroom from a private meeting with the Father smelling of booze.
One of the many clever devices in DOUBT is the way Shanley uses the exact same circumstances as justifications for the diametrically opposite views of Flynn and Aloysius. For example, Flynn resents Aloysius's accusation because its delivery by her to him flies in the face of the very church rules on authority and chain of command that Aloysius holds so dear. It is authority, after all, that permits Aloysius to bend the impressionable mind of a subordinate to her will. Similarly, Aloysius believes herself to be a better messenger of God because of her unflinching adherence the scripture's finest print. Flynn believes he's more holy because he's acting upon the dictates of the church's current leaders, who, he seems to suggest, would wholeheartedly approve of his idea to take some of the boys on an overnight camping trip -- in the interest of breaking down barriers between the church and the community, of course.
I haven't revealed more than you have probably already heard or will quickly surmise when you settle into your seat, but to say just about anything else would begin to tread into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that even though Shanley has said that the play's second act begins when the audience starts discussing its doubts about Flynn's motivations and Aloysius's zeal, I doubt that a churchyard who-done-it with a do-it-yourself ending was really all the playwright had in mind. Doubt, after all, is evidence of humanity, whose appearance will always trump even the most clever plot twists.
DOUBT, A Parable runs through August 10, 2008, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $26 to $64. For tickets and information visit theatreworks.org or call 650-903-6000.