Inspiring an Oscar-nominated film starring Meryl Streep, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable was first staged by New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club in 2004. It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the Tony Award for Best Play.
Doubt is set in 1964 in New York City’s Bronx borough in the fictitious St Nicholas’ Catholic school. Sister Aloysius (Belinda Giblin) is the school principal. She’s a formidable, staunchly conservative nun whose observance of proscribed values is totally unwavering. Early on in the piece, we see her extolling the virtues of adherence to her world view in a conversation (or, more accurately described, a lecture) addressing Sister James (Matilda Ridgway), a young member of the order whose instincts starkly contrast those of Sister Aloysius in relation to the manner in which students should be taught. It’s quickly apparent the senior nun is profoundly distrustful of others, be it the students of St Nicholas or her teaching peers.
That innate wariness, coupled with a particular set of events (which, at best, warrant characterisation as circumstantial evidence), lead Sister Aloysius to conclude that St Nicholas’ parish priest, Father Flynn (Damian De Montemas), has had improper relations with Donald Muller, the school’s first African-American student. She shares her concerns with Sister James, who she invites to attend a meeting in which she ultimately confronts Father Flynn with her suspicions. He’s indignant in rebuking the allegations and offers a version of events that neatly explain away what Sister Aloysius reports having seen, and that’s enough to dismiss any doubts Sister James may have had as to his innocence.
But Sister Aloysius remains unconvinced and persists with efforts to have Father Flynn exposed for his alleged crimes. She summons Donald Muller’s mother (Charmaine Bingwa) to the school and relays to her what she believes has occurred. However, Mrs Muller’s response is, again, not the reaction Sister Aloysius anticipates – essentially, she’s steadfast about ensuring her son makes it through the remaining days of his school career untainted by any public scandal. But even at that point, Sister Aloysius’ deeply felt doubts compel her to act further.
Doubt: A Parable is a sharply and tightly written piece that engages from the outset – with Father Flynn’s perceptive sermon on doubt – right through to its closing moments. It’s a straight-forward but affecting tale of the dangers of doubt itself – a demonstration of the potentially disastrous consequences that may result when doubt takes hold, and the point at which a purported search for truth crosses the line and becomes a witch hunt. We see the central characters in the piece struggling to make sense of and to resolve their own doubts. And thanks to Shanley’s strong text and skilful direction by Dino Dimitriadis, the audience’s own doubts as to where precisely the truth lies linger until the very end.
It was a thoughtful decision by Shanley to set his tale of doubt in a Catholic Church school in the 1960s, which was not only a time of profound societal change and an examination of what was right and wrong in the global community, but also a time when the Catholic Church itself reconsidered its own practices and teachings in the meetings of Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council, in an effort to resolve its own doubts as to the right way forward.
Dimitriadis has assembled a uniformly excellent cast to bring Doubt to the stage. As Sister Aloysius, Giblin is suitably sharp-eyed and exhibits the toughened exterior that the elder nun must have, in order to convince us she could persist in her efforts to remove Father Flynn from St Nicholas when those efforts are based on such flimsy evidence. As the priest at the centre of the storm, De Montemas is also impressive, creating a character who immediately appears more progressive than Sister Aloysius (that fact arguably causing the planting of the initial seed in her mind that Flynn is capable of monstrous wrongdoing) and is therefore someone to whom troubled students would believably relate and turn to for counsel. Ridgway’s Sister James is undeniably green and innately kind, and Bingwa manages to ensure Mrs Muller remains sympathetic despite wilful blindness towards a situation that may be endangering her child.
Doubt: A Parable is a cautionary tale about the repercussions of taking decisive action when, by any objective standard, a need to act in such manner is questionable. It’s also an immensely enjoyable evening of theatre.
DOUBT: A PARABLE – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre, 129 Dowling Street (Cnr Cathedral Street), Woolloomooloo
Season: Playing now until 3 June
Times: Tues-Sat 8:15pm, Sunday 6:30pm
Running Time: 90 minutes (no interval)
Price: $42 Adult, $35 Concession, $30 Cheap Tuesday