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Suspicious minds: Donna Davis (left) and Torsten Hillhouse in Doubt: A Parable.

Holy Inquisition

By James Yeara

Doubt: A Parable

By John Patrick Shanley, directed by Terrence LaMude

Capital Repertory Theatre, through June 29

There’s a moment that captures the essence of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, the 2005 Pulitizer-, Tony- and Obie Award-winning play currently receiving an engrossing production at Capital Repertory Theatre: The villain, Sister Aloysius (an excellent Donna Davis, who captures the icy smile of the martinet in this Catholic middle school headmistress) stands in her austere office and declares “in the pursuit of wrongdoing, one strays away from God.” Sister Aloysius seems to quiver with her convictions, like a severe relative of Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter) or a distant descendant of Thomas Gradgrind (Charles Dickens) who smile as they destroy—teachers of little talent who use their authority to maintain control. That she has ruined lives in her quest for dubious certainty, spreading gossip as gospel, lies as truth—as is the habit of all who see the world in absolutes—means nothing; Sister Aloysius simply smiles in the face of her underling, Sister James (an excellent Winslow Corbett, who literally finds the breath of fresh air in the novice teacher). “You may tell the truth, then lie later,” Sister Aloysius tells Sister James, seeking to control her. It’s a chilling moment.

The moment Father Flynn (an superb Torsten Hillhouse, whose Bronx accent captures the working class heart of the priest who is ever a teacher first) gives the first of his two excellent sermons, he is marked as the enemy of Sister Aloysius: “What do you do when you’re not sure? What if you ask, ‘Help me.’ Silence. What now? Which Way? What if no answers come? Doubt can be a bond powerful as certainty.” Father Flynn’s earnest, open, honest face beseeches his listeners to reach out to him, to take his offered hand—doubly so when he talks to the 12- and 13-year-old boys playing basketball in his physical- education class. His compassion, empathy, and zeal to teach mark him as the autocrat’s natural enemy, like a mongoose and a cobra. Father Flynn’s parables, like those of his savior’s, mark him as a man doomed for persecution. The audience seems to lean forward in anticipation of the clash that must come, not daring to miss a moment.

Doubt’s quintessential moment occurs in the office of its hero: Sister Aloysius has doggedly tracked the movements of suspected pedophile Father Flynn. It is 1964, and Flynn has shuffled from parish to parish, the chain of command doing what hierarchies do best, which is cover their own asses. As a woman, Sister Aloysius has experienced firsthand the patriarchal protection of wayward priests, and this is a seminal moment, considering the revelations of abuses and cover-ups that will be exposed in decades to come. It’s an “If I only knew then what I know now” moment, and Sister Aloysius pleads with Mrs. Muller (an excellent Adriane Lenox, who catches the dilemma of a woman who wishes the best for her child and knows that the ruling class will protect its own), the mother of the school’s sole African-American student, to help her expose the predatory priest by revealing his relationship with her 12-year-old son, Donald. Mrs. Muller pleads to protect her son until he graduates to the high school in three months, while Sister Aloysius insists, “A dog that bites is a dog that bites”; the women know that to protect her son is to sacrifice others, and to expose her son is to destroy his future.

The excellence of Capital Rep’s production of Doubt is embodied in the moment when Sister James is in the garden of the St. Nicholas school, sitting on the bench, listening to the pleadings of Father Flynn. Scenic designer Adrian W. Jones and lighting designer Rachel Budin fill the space with shadows and angles, beams of slanted light that make the skewed set, with its windows, gothic arch, rectangular doorways, and even the huge round rosetta window all lean right. Only by leaning left does Sister James seem to be centered, and the off-balanced effect captures the play perfectly.

Following the revelations, the reversals, the sermons, the threats, the lies, the innuendoes, and declarations, the stage goes black—punctuating the final lines, “I have doubts. I have such doubts.” The heroes, villains, pawns, and manipulators meld, and the audience is left to tussle with with the questions Doubt has raised. For those who love theater, Doubt is what you pray for.


Deconstructing Madness

Beyond Therapy

By Christopher Durang, directed by Alex Timbers

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, through June 22

 

I hope it is significant that Nich olas Martin has opened his first season as the artistic director on the WTF with a play by Durang, the only contemporary author I’ve encountered who can always make me laugh. Apart from a special holiday presentation of the brilliant Baby With Bathwater (ably directed by Martin) and his own loopy cabaret, Chris Durang and Dawn, the cheerfully deranged Durang has been sorely underrepresented in Williamstown—a slight I hope Martin reverses during his WTF tenure.

He surely has a knack for choosing the right people to work on Durang: actors who understand that no matter how demented the writing becomes, they must play it straight. And in Alex Timbers, he has a director who keeps the whole jangling mass spinning with enough centripetal force to maintain the center without letting Durang’s discordances fly into space.

This round robin begins with a blind date that could have been arranged by a post-Odysseun Cyclops—not merely inept, it is monstrously wrong. So much so, indeed, that it is clear that Prudence and Bruce, two urban 30-somethings lost in the psychobabble of the ’80s, might be each other’s best bets in the pre-Internet world of newspaper personals. If these two can be considered mildly neurotic, one fears what might be lurking behind the other personals in the penumbra of Durang’s imagination. We get hints of it from the supporting characters, who do just about everything but provide sound mental support for the two psychically damaged protagonists.

As Prudence and Bruce awkwardly grope their way toward each other, we glimpse the impediments to finding meaningful relationships. Formidable, and formidably played by Kate Burton in bursts of hysterical madness, Mrs. Wallace is a female psychiatrist whose bird-brained technique, which employs barking at Bruce with a stuffed Snoopy doll, is surpassed only by her faulty memory. Worse is Prudence’s therapist, Dr. Framingham, wonderfully framed by Darrell Hammond, who can actually sneer with both sides of his upper lip—simultaneously. While the worst that can be said about Wallace is that she periodically forgets her patients, Framingham is continually trying to ravish poor protesting Prudence, with whom he has already prematurely ejaculated preceding the play’s proceedings.

Rounding out the cast is Bruce’s live-in lover, Bob, who is played with such perfection by Matt McGrath that he finds the stereo in stereotype and creates a character whose every pause, posture, and preamble is pregnant with laughter.

Although his sudden episodes of crying seem a bit forced, Darren Goldstein’s contribution as Bruce is perhaps not fully appreciated until the play has ended. This is not because Bruce is a thankless role, but because, when compared to the other characters, he seems comparatively sane. As the lone bisexual character trying to navigate his way between homosexuality and heterosexuality, Goldstein’s Bruce cements the more outrageous segments together and acts as a great foil to Prudence, who becomes increasingly unglued as complications arise.

Ultimately, however, the show gets its charge from Katie Finneran’s comically cosmic unraveling of Prudence, who comes closer to sanity the more seemingly unglued she becomes. Finneran is the ideal Durang heroine: desperately fragile yet profoundly, if surprisingly, self-empowered. She’s Tennessee Williams’ Laura on amphetamines in a kickass robotic leg brace.

After some 110 minutes of laugh-inducing madness, whirling in and out of the therapists’ offices—wittily built into Walt Spangler’s scenic merry-go-round of jutting angles and antiseptic walls—the production rotates to the same restaurant at the edge of sanity where Prudence first met Bruce with, as it turns out, prudent-if-Byzantine results.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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