Bo List cites a line from the musical Into the Woods when talking about Doubt: A Parable, the first show produced by the newly minted AthensWest Theatre Company, which opens this weekend.
"Nice is different than good," he says, borrowing the line by Little Red Riding Hood while explaining the questions raised by John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony award-winning drama.
Father Brendan Flynn, a progressive, charming, and likeable priest, one of the play's four characters, is decidedly nice. Sister Aloysius Beauvier is decidedly not.
But that doesn't mean she's not good. A severely mistrusting, harsh, and conservative member of the Sisters of Charity, Sister Beauvier accuses Father Flynn of abusing a young boy, which the priest denies. Is the purpose of Sister Beauvier's strict, suspicious personality to protect the vulnerable, including children? Or is she simply mean and paranoid? Does a serial abuser lie beneath Father Flynn's exterior warmth and charm? Or is he an innocent man being maligned? These are the big questions that Doubt asks.
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Shanley never intended the play to be about Catholic bashing or religion bashing in general. The play's dedication reads:
"This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?"
List, who directs the play, says that he and fellow AthensWest co-founder Jeff Day, who plays Father Flynn, agreed that Doubt was a good first play for several reasons.
"We wanted to start with a great play," List says.
With its spate of awards, not to mention a film version that earned multiple Oscar nominations, Doubt qualifies as one of the most notable theatrical successes of the 21st century so far.
Artistic quality might have been the primary factor in selecting Doubt, but logistical and financial factors came into play as well.
As a new theater just accumulating seed money, the show's small cast size and relatively easy technical requirements make it budget-friendly.
"It's a lean play," List says. "There are no subplots, just four lives intersecting at a single moment in time."
The production also serves as a blueprint for the way AthensWest wants to work.
Featuring two members of the Actors Equity Association, the stage actors union, and two non-Equity actors, Doubt's cast strikes a symbolic balance between using union and non-union performers.
"We want people to know that we are very inclusive," says Day, a member of Actors Equity, along with castmate Leslie Beatty.
A debate about the role and definition of professional theater in Lexington has been divisive in the past, but List and Day hope AthensWest can serve as a middle ground.
Equity contracts are not unheard of in Lexington. Numerous companies have presented actors under special Equity agreements including Kentucky Conservatory Theatre's Winterfest, which closes its production of Hamlet Friday night with Equity actor Matthew Lewis Johnson in the title role. And another new troupe, The Lexington Theatre Company, which will present summertime musicals at the Lexington Opera House, also aims to employ Equity actors. But until now, there have not been many opportunities for Equity actors to find consistent work in Lexington, as the nearest union theaters are in Louisville and Cincinnati.
"When you look around at a lot of our young talent, they are leaving the area to go work in places like New York and Chicago," List says. "We'd like for them not to have to leave, or to provide a home base for them to return to between shows."
For example, Shannon Baker, a recent Asbury University graduate who plays young, impressionable nun Sister James, is heading to Atlanta to pursue her acting career after Doubt closes.
"The chance to work with Equity actors right out of college has been an incredible learning opportunity," Baker says.
They also want Lexington to become a place where actors can work towards earning their Equity card, where local Equity actors can work, and where non-union actors can continue to get professional experience under their belts.
Many local actors elect to be non-union because Equity membership can significantly limit opportunities for working locally. Many local theaters say they cannot afford to pay union rates on a regular basis. Plus, there are stringent working restrictions in Equity contracts. For example, three days before Doubt's opening night, the entire cast had a whole day off. A day off during the week of technical rehearsals is rare in Lexington, but the performers' Equity contract stipulates a minimum of one day off per week.
If AthensWest develops the way its founders hope, their theater will be a place for all types of actors to work at many different stages of their career.
While AthensWest organizers are dreaming big, they are also taking things one practical step at a time.
"If Doubt goes well, we'd like to take the next step and create a season of about three shows," Day says.
List says that community support, both in terms of audience attendance and financial contributions from individual and business donors, is vital for the theater's growth.
"We're working very hard to build something special for Central Kentucky, and could really use your support," List wrote in a Facebook post. "We have a great story to tell, and want to tell lots of great stories. In short, we are seeking a long-term relationship with Central Kentucky, and this is our first date!"