Friday, March 22

Theater Review: “Doubt: A Parable”

I have a confession to make. I was reluctant to brave the 101 in packed traffic and a torrential downpour just to see a play. What merit could there possibly be in driving all the way out to Ventura to see a regional theater company interpret “Doubt,” a show that has already earned its stripes as much on the New York stage as in the Hollywood box office? To put it simply, I had my doubts.

However, the Rubicon Theatre Company lives up to its self-given billing as “The Region’s Professional Theatre Company.” From sets to costumes to acting, “Doubt” was a riveting show. The production’s success is proof that John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning script is a winning formula for thoughtful, relevant drama ““ and not just on the silver screen.

Father Flynn is the progressive and newly arrived parish priest at St. Nicholas Church in the Bronx. The play starts as the church school begins in the fall of 1964, under the reign of Sister Aloysius, the school principal and severely disciplinarian nun. The drama unfolds as Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of sexual improprieties with Donald Mueller ““ the school’s first black student. The ensuing struggle between priest and nun and between doubt and truth is what moves audiences to take sides ““ and ultimately feel pain, outrage or empathy based on their own uncertainties.

“Doubt,” which received its subtitle, “A Parable,” shortly after its theatrical release on Broadway in 2005, is more an exploration of faith and uncertainty, innocence and guilt, and compassion and justice than a story about sexual scandal in the Catholic Church. The themes and precise language of Shanley’s script are nurtured and magnified in the Rubicon Theatre Company’s careful hands.

The set is simple and requires no scenery changes for the 90-minute show. The priest’s pulpit neighbors Aloysius’ office. Gravel covers a quarter of the stage and creates an outside garden at the stage’s front. A small strip of undecorated stage serves as an intermediate space between these three locales. Limited to these settings, the play creates a sense of a cloistered community, one that is almost too small to permit both Flynn and Aloysius (and their conflicting ideals) to be at the same place at the same time.

The costumes are spartan. Aloysius and the more naive Sister James are always seen in their long, black habits. Mrs. Mueller, Donald’s mother, only appears in one scene and dons nothing but a simple, albeit attractive, dress with some basic accoutrements: gloves, purse and winter hat. And although Flynn is mostly seen wearing his dark robes, he is the only actor who ever changes costumes. His beautiful green cassock worn during sermons and his plain sweat suit used for his coaching responsibilities hold no apparent symbolism in and of themselves. Rather, it is the mere fact that he changes costumes that is important, as it implies increased liberty over the play’s female characters. The theme of doubt arises once again as Flynn’s freedom can be interpreted as an extension of his progressive policies or as a chameleon-like ability to cover up his tracks.

The acting is spot-on and intensely engaging. With a cast of only four actors, any fault is hard to hide and can easily lead to the play’s failure. Fortunately, Robin Pearson Rose as Sister Aloysius and Joseph Fuqua as Father Flynn deliver strong, believable performances as mutual antagonists. Collette Porteous as Mrs. Mueller and Lauren Patten as the innocent Sister James perform well, but their acting was slightly marred by too precise a representation of emotion. A properly timed line and the artifice of feeling is not the same thing as actual feeling.

I left the playhouse, which interestingly enough is a remodeled chapel, with the same questions and feelings as when I saw the movie version in 2008. I repeated and mulled over the same lines, trying to connect the dots, only realizing that they form a perfect circle: doubt, faith and certainty supplant each other as the need arises, but it is hard to tell if there is any truth to any one of them at all.

Was the play good? Yes. Was it worth the drive? Probably. Was the play’s strength due to the Rubicon Theatre Company’s production end, or thanks to Shanley’s tight script? If the show was good, I guess it doesn’t really matter, but I still have my doubts.

““ Daniel Boden

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