Theater: ‘Doubt’ takes hold and doesn’t let go

(Actors Theatre of Louisville presents “Doubt, a Parable,” through May 10. Written by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. For tickets or info, call 584-1205 or visit
“What do you do when you’re not sure?” Thus begins “Doubt, a Parable,” John Patrick Shanley’s psychologically riveting play currently running at Actors Theatre. What follows causes such intense moral introspection that 90 minutes feel like five.

“Doubt” is set in 1964. Sister Aloysius (Caitlin O’Connell), principal of a school in the Bronx, begins to suspect a young priest, Father Flynn (Ted Deasy), of inappropriate behavior toward a new student. Sister James (Makela Spielman), the student’s innocent young teacher, becomes a pawn, torn between her compassion and her desire to please.

“Doubt” won a slew of awards, including the Tony for Best Play and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. There’s little doubt as to why. Culling from his own history, which included growing up both in the Bronx and the Roman Catholic church, and from the shocking accusations (and proof) of sexual abuse in the church that rocked the world in 2002, Shanley constructed a play that is compelling in how it delves deeply into the dark chamber of the human conscience.

This fascinating examination works on a number of levels. There’s the hierarchy of the church to consider — a nun bringing forward suspicions against a priest would almost certainly be dismissed. Then there’s the multifaceted issue of inequality, especially set against the incendiary backdrop of the 1960s: a woman accuses a man; the student in question is black; homosexuality is not discussed openly, if at all.

The heart of the play, however, is what classifies it as timeless. When one feels the first pang of doubt, how does the mind decide to either dismiss it or allow it to grow? As Father Flynn says, citing how the nation was conjoined by collective uncertainty after John Kennedy’s assassination, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful as certainty.”
How can intuition, essentially a feeling, stand as proof, yet how can it be ignored? To what ends will one go to verify that intuition? “In pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God,” Sister Aloysius firmly asserts. How does one version triumph over another? And in matters of one’s word against another’s, can a singular truth ever be determined?

There’s a sense that “Doubt” might be one of those extremely rare foolproof plays; nevertheless, ATL’s production values are mostly right on. The straightforward and efficient set turns, and as it does, a light from within casts a spotlight over the audience. The echoey quality of the sound design lends a dreamlike eeriness.

Performances are routinely somewhat one-dimensional. Spielman indulges a tendency toward shrillness. Though Joy C. Hooper (Mrs. Muller, the student’s mother) is plenty indignant, she fails to temper that with her desperate need to entreat Sister Aloysius.

Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are pitted absolutely against each other, and because Shanley doesn’t take sides, it should be difficult for the audience to do so as well (observe how an audience in Louisville — which had its own role in the sex abuse scandal — leans in terms of whether he did or didn’t do it). Although his determination is sound, Deasy lacks the easygoing affability necessary to charm the audience.

O’Connell fares better, though her armor might be too steely. Still, there’s no denying the emotional force of the massive blows both actors deal during their climatic scene.

Shanley cleverly named the play “Doubt, a Parable.” A simple story, yes, but the moral lesson? Like any good parable, this one won’t easily be dismissed.

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