by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring: Seanna McKenna, David Storch,
Daniela Vlaskalic, Raven Dauda
At the Bluma
Playing through May 30  416-368-3110

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Although John Patrick Shanley's play, Doubt, is set in the past it is very much a play about the present. The past is only a convenient first floor entrance for the playwright to allow the audience not to have to deal with current events more than is absolutely necessary. With everything else going on in the world presently, to place the problem of pedophilic priests - so much in the news over the past few years - at or near the top of the socially concerned agenda of the here and now might be a bit of a stretch. So Shanley has wisely set the play in 1964 - in a Bronx Catholic school - a year after the Kennedy assassination and an equally unsettling time for the American people.

The second floor of the play's architecture has to do with template. It's not so much a "whodunit" as it is a "HE-dunnit, now let's prove it" schematic. It doesn't take Sister Aloysius (played by Seana McKenna) long to make up her mind about the guilt or innocence of Father Flynn (David Storch) after she is made aware of the circumstantial evidence presented to her by Sister James (Daniela Vlaskalic) that points to his involvement with a twelve year old African American youth who goes to the school. The youngster has been discovered to have been drinking alter wine, and the fact that this is not just a student but the only black student in the school only heightens (and complicates) the drama.

Sister Aloysius is the school's principal and a strict disciplinarian. We soon come to learn that she represents religious orthodoxy while Father Flynn argues a more inclusive, liberal and progressive approach to education as well as to the Catholic faith. His opening sermon on the subject of Doubt is revealing because it suggests that everyone has doubts from time to time - even priests - and that this is a normal state of affairs.

Later, in a meeting called by Sister Aloysius and Sister James to discuss the school's upcoming Christmas pageant, Father Flynn encourages the singing of secular songs such as "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Frosty the Snowman" as well as the standard carols. Sister Aloysius argues against it, going so far as to assert that "Frosty the Snowman" encourages pagan ideas because it portrays the magical transformation of an inanimate object into something that is human-like. Sister Aloysius is also skeptical about the use of ball point pens (because they adversely affect the pursuit of good penmanship) and transistor radios. Between the two rivals, a mini-culture war is played out brilliantly with only a limited amount of dialog.

The meeting itself is only a pretext to confront Father Flynn about his relationship with the boy. This proves unsuccessful (he has a credible excuse as to why the student was found to have alcohol on his breath) but Sister Aloysius is persistent. She schedules a meeting with Mrs. Muller (the boy's mother) and tries to dig deeper. This is a critical moment in the play's plot construction when we learn from Mrs. Muller (Raven Dauda) that the boy may indeed have a gay predisposition and so what? According to his mother, the fact that Father Flynn might be sensitive to this - or that he even might have had some intimacy with the boy - is not her major concern. What she wants desperately is for her son to be able to graduate from the school in June and have the opportunity to go on to a good high school.

The role of Mrs. Muller is a bit of a ringer dramatically speaking, but an affective emotional manipulator on the playwright's part. Shanley has invested the actor with only one scene and it is powerful. Raven Dauda rises to the challenge magnificently as did Viola Davis in the recent film version that starred Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.

The climax of this short play (which runs a mere ninety minutes) comes when Sister Aloysius reveals that the most condemning piece of evidence against Father Flynn was obtained under false pretense. That is, the inference (claimed as fact by Sister Aloysius) that the Father had run into similar situations in previous postings within the last five years and that these circumstances prompted his reassignment on more than one occasion. Sister Aloysius claims that she received this information by way of a telephone conversation she had with a nun in one of Father Flynn's previous schools. She believes this is what prompted Father Flynn to resign: he knows that she knows.  In fact, Sister Aloysius later confesses to Sister James that she made no such phone call but Father Flynn's subsequent resignation proves her belief in his guilt. She rationalizes her lie with the admonition: "In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God."

In becoming an activist in her persecution of Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius has perforce given up the peace of mind and spiritual serenity that came with the certitude of her religious vows (i.e. to respect the authority of the church hierarchy, etc). She has now entered into an uncomfortable existential terrain that has precipitated a crisis of faith which she has heretofore not expressed. At the play's conclusion, Sister Aloysius has come full circle in her philosophy. Her final line in the play expresses this conflict in a nod (though not a bow) to the absent Father Flynn when she confesses: "I have doubts."

The Canadian Stage production was directed by Marti Maraden. Critics have laid the blame for the feckless and lethargic pace of the show at her doorstep and I would have to agree. As is sometimes the case in situations like this, the thankless roles (in this case Daniela Vlaskalic as the wimpy Sister James) suffer the most. Seasoned pros like Seana McKenna and David Storch are able to fend for themselves all right and Raven Dauda just has success built into the role of Mrs. Muller.

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