Befitting a play about the slippery nature of the truth, the title of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play can be taken in multiple ways. For sure, part of it is about the doubt at the center of the play's action: Did popular priest Flynn have an inappropriate relationship with one of the eighth-graders at the parish's school? There's more than that at the heart of the play, however. Each of the four characters is wracked by self-doubt about their own faith and place in the world, and there's the larger doubt that lives in the corners of the play, about how the church is changing with the times.
Shanely packs a lot into a piece that runs less than 90 minutes, and director Craig Johnson and the four-actor company do a fine job of bringing all these issues into play. Yet considering the talents and material on display, this should have been an exemplary production, and it doesn't quite reach the heights that it could.
The play is set entirely on the grounds of St. Nicholas, a Roman Catholic parish in the heart of the Bronx in 1964. In the insular world of the church's school, Sister Aloysius (Linda Kelsey) reigns supreme. She is hard, tough, and spare with any kind of compliment. The counterpoint is Sister James (Anna Sundberg), a young nun in charge of one of the eighth-grade classes.
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul
651.291.7005; through May 13
Aloysius has her doubts about Father Flynn, which seem to be confirmed by the younger nun, who has seen odd behavior from one of the students, a boy who happens to be the first African-American student at the school, which is dominated by the Irish and Italian children of the local parish.
That sets up a battle of wits between Flynn (David Mann) and Aloysius, who is restricted by the hierarchy of the church and the natural position of power a priest has in the parish and diocese. We never find out exactly what happened, as the young man at the center of the play isn't a character. The closest we get is the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (Regina Marie Williams), who adds even a bit more doubt about what actually transpired.
The actors can have a field day in Doubt, as the material gives them not just intriguing characters but plenty of slippery dialogue loaded with multiple meanings. For the most part, the actors take full advantage in Park Square's production, especially Kelsey and Sundberg. Both dig into the rich mines of their characters, bringing up all the unspoken pains, resentments, and even desires that lurk within them.
After all, we tend to sympathize with the younger, "innocent" Sundberg, but she brings an unexpected edge to her character as the play goes on, hinting at some real darkness that brought her to the convent. We know early on that Kelsey's character has a past behind her hard exterior, but as she slowly hints at her own troubles, our knowledge grows deeper.
The weak part ends up being Mann, who doesn't have the right balance for Father Flynn. As with every other aspect of the play, we need to have doubt about what he did, but I never felt much of that. His priest lives too much on the surface, which strips some of the power from his conversations with Kelsey and Sundberg and his eventual confrontation with the older nun.
That leaves Williams, who gets one absolutely terrific scene as the boy's mother. She played the same role last year in Ten Thousand Things' production of the show and is once again the absolute highlight of the play. Her character gets only a few minutes to show all the conflicts and contradictions in her life, and Williams brings them out with every vocal inflection and small gesture. She offers plenty of intensity, of course, but it is the small moments that make this a winning performance.
Director Johnson crafts a solid production, giving the actors space to work within Shanley's rich script. Considering the piece is subtitled "A Parable," it sometimes feels too tied to the specific moment in time, all the way down to pre-curtain audio to let us know that, yes, this all happened in the '60s and those were tumultuous times. Considering that the issues presented are still in play in the Catholic Church and the world at large, that specific hook isn't needed.