AthensWest Theatre Company makes a promising debut with Doubt: A Parable, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, which continues through Feb. 15.
The play, which was adapted into a 2008 film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, unfolds in 1964 at a Catholic school. Sister Aloysius, a fiercely strict nun and the school’s principal, suspects popular priest Father Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s first black student.
With no evidence and no realistic way to oust him via official church protocol, Sister Aloysius must resort to shrewdly cunning ways of protecting the children. But is she really protecting the children or is she causing trouble for an innocent man? Is she just a shrewd, paranoid nun who resents the post-Vatican II progressivism Father Flynn represents, or a misunderstood, not terribly likeable heroine?
Director Bo List has created a deeply thought-provoking production that leaves the audience debating after the show, a good sign for a theater’s first venture.
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The play's success hinges on cultivating doubt within the audience. Did he do it? Did he not do it? I was perplexed and conflicted until the play’s final moments. After the show, I overheard several audience members speculating about Father Flynn's guilt or innocence, and the informal verdict was evenly divided.
That’s in large part thanks to Jeff Day’s powerfully convincing performance as Father Flynn. Day’s Flynn is a warm, ingratiating charmer who exudes innocence and conviviality. It’s really hard to dislike him, let alone believe he is sexually abusing the boys he is charged with protecting.
And Sister Aloysius’ severe personality doesn’t help her case. Leslie Beatty’s portrayal of the fiercely protective nun palpably conveys the cold terror a nun of her era could elicit with the smallest gesture or turn of phrase. Beatty’s strength is that she allows Sister Aloysius’ humanity to peek through her rigid exterior. She may inspire dread, but her strident behavior is driven by the fervent solemnity with which she views her vows and her responsibility to protect young lives. Her performance in the play’s final moments is particularly effective. Despite what appears to be resolution, Sister Aloysius is far from relieved; instead she is visibly weighed down with her own doubts and fears.
Shannon Baker’s gentle but nuanced performance as Sister James, a naive young nun, often conveys the conflict and incredulity that the audience is feeling. And in a brief but explosive role as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy Father Flynn is suspected of molesting, Tiffiney Baker delivers some of the play’s most jarring and uncomfortable truths, truths which elevate the play beyond a did-he-or-didn’t-he dichotomy to an examination of what pain and injustices are tolerable prices to pay to avoid even further pain and injustices.
It is telling that these are questions only the women in the play must ask. Father Flynn remains protected by the patriarchal hierarchy of the church and unlike the other characters, is not changed by what happens.
After a tumultuous year in the theater community, it’s exciting to see a new venture like AthensWest make a strong debut.