Ten Thousand Things Theater's Doubt is a taut, 75-minute ride into the world of accusations, mistrust, and the ever-shifting nature of the truth. In the hands of four terrific actors and guest director Peter Rothstein, it also lights up the stage with passion and often-raw rage that is absolutely mesmerizing.
Peter Vitale for Ten Thousand Things
Investigation or witch hunt? Kris Nelson and Sally Wingert
Doubt Ten Thousand Things Theater at Open Book Through March 6, 612.203.9502
Playwright John Patrick Shanley strips the narrative down to its bare essentials. There are only four characters and a handful of scenes in the play, but they all play perfectly together to present the often slippery nature of the truth. Set in 1964 in an Irish-Italian Roman Catholic parish in the Bronx, Doubt presents a world in which accusations are left to fester because no one is willing to confront the truth head-on.
At the center of the play are a popular parish priest, Father Flynn, and the nun who also serves as the parish school's principal, Sister Aloysius. The sister is old-fashioned (she won't let the students use the newfangled ballpoint pens) and seems more concerned with running a well-ordered school than with providing a place for young boys and girls to grow.
The sister has her concerns about the priest, and, having her vague suspicions confirmed by a young, impressionable nun, Sister James, she goes on a quest to force Father Flynn to admit to an improper relationship with the school's first African-American student.
Or, you could see Aloysius as someone who has discovered the truth but is unable to truly act on it because of the impediments of the time—from the hierarchy of the church and the knowledge that the suspicions of a woman aren't going to hold much water against the man.
Shanley never says exactly what happened. The slippery truth means allegiances and beliefs are constantly shifting through the play.
Sally Wingert leads the charge as Aloysius, stiff to the point of calcification. Wingert employs plenty of stern gazes and clipped tones but also shows a glimmer of the pain the woman—who was widowed before becoming a nun—carries inside. "Where is your compassion?" the father asks her. "Nowhere you can get at it," she replies, with venom but also real pain.
Kris Nelson's Father Flynn is the opposite type. Outspoken and easygoing, he appears to be the perfect teacher for the boys. Apart from the outward charm, Nelson also plays Flynn as someone absolutely convinced he is right. Even in the climax, where his hand is forced, Nelson's Flynn leaves us with the play's signature doubt: Are his actions a confession of guilt or just a desire to escape from an untenable situation?
As Sister James, Jane Froiland appears to be the most innocent of the characters. She desperately wants to believe that nothing untoward has happened and at times lets her distaste for her superior show, creating a deep, satisfying character.
The smallest role here turns out to be the absolute highlight, as Regina Marie Williams becomes a force of nature in her portrayal of Mrs. Muller, the young boy's mother. In her few minutes onstage, the careful church-bound world is blown apart by her realities: a son who is "different" than the others, a husband who beats him, and a desire to protect her son even if it means dealing with normally unspoken topics.
Even at the end of Doubt, our emotions and beliefs are in complete flux. Were the sisters' efforts worth anything at all? Had they driven away a good man, or had they pushed someone with deep problems into a place where he could do even more harm?