AISLE SAY Seattle, Washington


by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Warner Shook
Produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre
155 Mercer St. Seattle, WA 98109 / (206) 443-2222

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

A priest is suspected of inappropriate contact with a young male student in the parochial school atmosphere of 1964. How could this be anything but an "issue" play? Well, it could be written by John Patrick Shanley, one of the most rigorous and accomplished playwrights now working. In his hands, the largest questions do not arise from circumstances and events, but from greater, more fundamental concerns about knowledge and responsibility. What is the cost of certainty, of doubt? What relationship does each have to finding the truth, about this situation to be sure, but in a larger sense to the way in which we carry in ourselves the sum of those suppositions we call truth.

"Doubt" was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the Tony award for Best Play. The script is meticulously constructed, elegantly balanced to present both arguments and individuals, and builds a captivating conflict to a resolution which is both authentic and inconclusive, precisely the "Doubt" which the title promises. In this production the cast is quite uneven, with two superior players and two who are less well-finished. The direction, by Warner Shook, fails to raise the stakes quite high enough, fails to put quite enough danger in the central conflict, and as a result the reversal of the ending is less striking and less effective than it should be. While there are many fine moments, and some fully-realized scenes, the production as a whole feels a bit flaccid, a bit too comfortable and accommodating to achieve the sort of knife-edge tension the script details.

The central conflict is between Sister Aloysius, the principal of a Catholic school, and Father Brendan Flynn, a personable and well-liked teacher and coach who seems to be developing dubious relationships with some of his students. In particular, a young boy named Donald Muller returned from "counseling" with Father Flynn with "a look on his face" and then rested his head on his desk. A new teacher, Sister James, finds herself in the middle of the conflict, innocent and trusting, liking and admiring Father Flynn, but clearly under the sway of Sister Aloysius. That is a substantial sway, indeed. Being a woman who cannot abide uncertainty, Sister Aloysius confronts Father Flynn, and without either of them acknowledging anything other than her suspicions and his innocence, he resigns his position at the school and moves on. When Donald's mother comes to the office to speak with Sister Aloysius, it not only intensifies the uncertainty around Father Flynn, but greatly complicates the question of what misconduct really is, and whether her son has been mistreated or aided, whether Flynn was predatory or simply kind. In the end, what's done is done, and only in the denouement of the conflict can the first crippling hints of uncertainty creep into Sister Aloysius, too late to affect anything that's already happened.

Kandis Chappell is amazing as Sister Aloysius, as much an edifice of the Church and its school as the brick walls and cold stone floors. For all her toughness and uncompromising expectation, Ms. Chappell also shows the subtlest suggestions of an emotional interior that is generous and deep, capable of navigating the secular world without ever losing the bearings of her religious compass. This is a formidable character, and from that some of the production's central problems arise. Father Flynn is young, energetic, personable and ambitious. With this terrible accusation (to be accused of child sexual abuse is tantamount to a kind of conviction in itself) we should see a response to enormous danger: to his career, his reputation, his personal integrity. But for me, those scenes felt more like charges of petty misconduct, embarrassing but not catastrophic.

Corey Brill played Father Flynn as too much of a nice guy, casual and self-confident, concerned but not in crisis, and certainly no match for the moral rectitude of Sister Aloysius. As a result, the Sister's final moments in the play felt contrived and inadequately motivated. I don't think the problem is in the script. I think we needed to still hear the echoes of great armament from Flynn and Aloysius's earlier battle in order for the resolution to be justified. Similarly, I thought that Melissa D. Brown was too lightweight as the new teacher who "makes history too interesting". With her character, I felt we should have seen more of the fear and potential injury of lingering so near the perimeter of this moral and ethical killing zone.

It was the spectacular performance of Cynthia Jones as the mother of the boy who has allegedly been abused that really raised the level of expectation, and emphasized just how intense and affecting this whole play should have been. Her riveting performance as a woman who only wants what's best for her child, regardless of how the rest of the world might see that, was simply brilliant. I believed every word she said. I believed the entirety of her relationship with her child. I believed the world she lived in. And I believed that she fully understood all of the stakes at play in this situation, and precisely what she was doing and why. I'm quite certain that her scene will remain in my memory long after I've forgotten the rest of this production.

Credit must be given to Scenic Designer Michael Ganio for the elegant and effective mechanical set, using flats and wagons to move us in and out of the walls of the school. The set-dressing deftly put us into that mid-1960's timeframe without ever being too insistent. Equally important was the fine lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. "Doubt" is a stunning play, surprisingly difficult to balance in all its complexity and nuance. Although excellent performances like those given by Kandis Chappell and Cynthia Jones gave us a clear indication of the potential and impact this show should have, in the end Warner Shook simply didn't hold our feet to the fire quite enough. This is one of those shows that I look forward to seeing again, but in another production.

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