What: Doubt, A Parable
Where: Langham Court Theatre
When: Until Dec. 5
Rating: Four stars (out of five)
It is more than just Pope Francis’s recent condemnation of Roman Catholic church officials who covered up child sexual abuse that makes Doubt, A Parable more relevant than ever. So does the disturbing spectacle of individuals passing judgment based not on knowledge, but unfettered emotion through social media, most recently in the torrent of online Muslim-bashing.
The potentially destructive impact of such blind conviction that, at its worst, is tantamount to what went during the McCarthy witchhunts and other historical blemishes, is at the core of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. It’s a powerful piece that, despite a successful run on Broadway, is probably best known because of the 2013 movie version starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I mention McCarthyism because the play is set in the mid-1960s, and the kind of rampant paranoia triggered by Communism and racial integration is being eerily recalled in the Syrian refugee crisis.
These parallels add a layer of the uneasiness that Shanley hoped his audience would feel, an objective director Don Keith and the cast of Langham Court Theatre’s production effectively achieve.
Set in and around a Catholic school in the Bronx, this 90-minute play is a philosophical battle of wills. The antagonists are Sister Aloysius (Fran Patterson), the school’s fiercely conservative principal, and Father Flynn (Wayne Yercha), the beloved parish priest and school gym teacher she is “certain” has molested the school’s only black student, a 12-year-old boy.
The lengths to which Sister Aloysius appears willing to go to bring down this charismatic, open-minded priest, whom she views as a symbol of the church’s patriarchal foundation, is chilling. Are her concerns genuine and justifiable? Or is this implacable old-school nun’s overzealousness fuelled by her unwillingness to embrace Vatican II’s more liberal structure, personified in part by her clerical target’s eagerness to embrace the laity?
The elderly nun’s intolerance is voiced amusingly (as when she vilifies Frosty the Snowman) and dramatically through interaction with Sister James (Emma Hughes), an innocent young teacher.
The point of Doubt, which recalls such literary predecessors as Rashomon and The Children’s Hour, is for theatregoers to make up their own minds about Flynn’s guilt or innocence.
One of this production’s most intriguing aspects is that, without giving away pertinent details, the verdict appears more clear than in other interpretations.
The dramatic payoff takes some time, however. The production’s first half-hour is more evocative than dramatic as it gradually pulls us into the clergy’s world of sacred confinement.
Indeed, Yercha is so convincing that when he concludes a stirring homily in his vestments, Catholics might find themselves tempted to make the sign of the cross.
Affecting a decent Bronx accent, Yercha conveys Father Flynn’s affability, but with an underlying edginess, so persuasively you wonder if he might be too good to be true. His potency on the pulpit is impressive, as when the priest who professes to be a vulnerable child’s protector delivers a cautionary sermon on gossip, or declares: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”
In her wire-rimmed spectacles and black bonnet, Patterson initially comes off as an overly vindictive villainess, but her humanity eventually surfaces to match her severe moral superiority. While her delivery seemed a little rushed and less modulated than it might have been early on, Patterson overcame this.
Hughes, radiant and wide-eyed, provided a contrasting softness as Sister James, her initially mousy colleague, effectively embodying her function as an audience surrogate.
As the alleged victim’s mother, Rosemary Jeffery was electrifying during her single scene in which she unleashes anguish and frustration over a complex situation.
Keith’s direction is solid and subtly effective, and he balances the situation’s potential for humour as well as drama.
He also designed the show’s remarkable revolving set, an airy cluster of light-grey arches, wooden tree and bush sculptures, the principal’s office and a pulpit highlighted by stained-glass representations.
Other highlights include Carol-Anne Moore’s lighting, particularly the churchy purple hues; Pearl Arden’s authentic sacred costumes; and Jason King’s transporting, spiritual sound design.
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