After watching John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, A Parable there are three possible outcomes: you side with the priest, you side with the nun or, in perhaps Shanley’s preferred outcome, you find yourself unable to make up your mind. What I did not expect was a fourth possible outcome and the one I experienced on Friday night: indifference.
Set in a fictional Catholic school in the Bronx during the fall of 1964, the play tells the story of the struggle between the school’s tough headmistress Sister Aloysius and her belief that the young charismatic new priest Father Flynn has molested one of the children. But rather than some lurid exploration of the ongoing Catholic sex abuse scandals, as suggested by its title, the play is meant to act as a lesson that reaches far deeper than simple anti-Catholic rhetoric. Here Shanley challenges his audience by presenting the material with equal weight that should in the end leave us with our own uncertainty.
I should confess my bias here. I am a sexual abuse survivor, having been molested as a child by a priest. Going into a show like Doubt can conjure all kinds of memories. I have always steadfastly believed that any suspicion of sexual interference must be dealt with harshly and swiftly. That is why when I first saw Doubt a few years back I was shocked when I walked away without taking sides. I found myself so perplexed in that realization that the story lingered with me for many days after. This production failed to stir any of those same emotions.
In Shanley’s world there must be absolute conviction in both Sister Aloysius (Erla Faye Forsyth) and Father Flynn (Giovanni Mocibob) until the very end. Forsyth never quite gets us to that place, softening at every turn and in doing so making her final moments unbelievable. Mocibob, in his on-again-off-again attempt at a Kennedy accent, is never ambiguous enough to seed the smallest doubt that his Father Flynn could possibly perpetrate these heinous acts. As the young Sister James who unwittingly starts her superior’s crusade, Kaitlin Williams never left us wondering too long as to who’s side she will ultimately take. Leslie Lewis Sword, in the tiny role as the mother of the boy who is thought to have been molested, brings the only shocklingly truest performance of the evening.
Part of the difficulty here also stems from director Ron Reed’s decision to present Doubt in two acts; at just 90 minutes the momentum of the story is interrupted unnecessarily and set designer Nicole Bach doesn’t help; although she gives a beautifully painted altar with its wonderfully realized moveable parts, they seemed unnecessarily fussy in their transitions and added to the loss in momentum.
In an interview some time ago, playwright Shanley professed to not know the end of his play, saying that the ending takes place after the show is over and you fight about what happened. There was no such fight in our household last night.
By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Ron Reed. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at the Pacific Threater through March 31, 2012. Visit http://www.pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.