Doubt is John Patrick Shanley’s masterpiece, pitting certainty against doubt and innocence against guilt in an uncompromising and sometimes volatile fashion wherein the lines of truth are often blurred, but the final question becomes – who is, in fact, guilty?
The most difficult role in the play is perhaps that of Father Flynn, a working class priest working at a Catholic school in the Bronx, New York, in the early ’60’s. Green Room Award winning actor, Daniel Humphris (Flowerchildren), plays Father Flynn in RL Productions Doubt opening at Chapel Off Chapel next month. Daniel describes his character as a charismatic, warm-hearted and somewhat progressive priest.
“His journey in the play is at first, almost fanatically kind and generous,” Humphris explains. “He butts heads with the old establishment of Sister Aloysius, and engages in a war of words with her to win over the idealistic, and somewhat naive and innocent young nun they both associate with. His clash with Sister Aloysius appears garden-variety at first, with the male controlled church vs. a lone sister armed only with her faith, and her safe haven of rigid traditional values in everyday life. But very soon, answers are demanded of him, and his ability under fire starts to show faults. He has entered the church resolved to bring care, warmth and safety to people… but it’s unclear whether or not this generosity of his is a smokescreen for something more sinister. By the end of the play, only one of Aloysius and Flynn will still be at the school.”
Shanley has cleverly woven a play wherein the thread of ambiguity hangs long after the final scene. The Father Flynn character was played to absolute perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2008 film adaption of the play. It is a challenge agrees Humphris.
“It’s an incredibly difficult tightrope walk from start to finish for the actor playing father Flynn. There’s a lot of ways to approach it, is he guilty? Does he believe he’s guilty? Is he a bad man? Does he know he’s a bad man? Does his conscience speak to him in indirect ways?”
“Secondly though, the play would have had much less appeal had Stephen not been directing. Having met him many times and seen his work, I was confident we had someone who takes the text of a play seriously. Stephen Wheat (Legally Blonde, The Boy From Oz) has always struck me as a director who thrives in a situation where a script seems complicated and difficult. For this play, it’s a must to approach every issue in it head on, and not shy away from any. After all, the audience won’t.”
Shanley has also been clever with his setting, which aptly underpins the conservative attitudes of education at the time, as well as an exploration of a boys club that, some may argue, still prevails in the church today. However, the play is not a religious one in any traditional sense- it does ponder questions of morality, but beneath it all is a deeper, more human motivation. Right versus wrong, and the relentless pursuit of that wrong – the conundrum being – what if the pursuer is wrong?
Humphris, too, doesn’t find himself considering religion as much in this play as he thought he would.
“There really isn’t any direct attack on the church and its practices in this film,” he states. “The Catholic faith and Church give us strong colours to paint with, yes, but in terms of being critical? No. The play might just as well have much of the same script, but set in the white house, or even Parliament house, with a few choice sections adapted.”
“The themes Shanley discusses, Flynn’s guilt or lack thereof, Sister Aloysius’ overzealous commitment to old values, are there to be seen from very early on, but strangely it’s not in the exposition that the play makes its point. I feel like for those who aren’t familiar with the play, I shouldn’t say too much more… What I will say is that questions of morality, ethics and our own action and inaction in the face of difficult choices is what the play dwells on. The intention is not to show a real-life scenario as some sort of historical account (though it is an entirely plausible one), but to leave the audience uncomfortable and ill-at-ease. With the choices made by the main characters, with their own choices of who they believe was in the right within the 90 minutes, and in the wider world, the choices they have made, or chosen not to make in the face of confusion and misinformation. Stanley gives us no answers. But somehow demands we make a choice.”
For Humphris, the play is a 90 minute tightrope. “There are moments where we feel sure he’s guilty. And others where we’re resolved in our faith in him. Lean too much one way or another and the play ceases to cause disruption in the mind of its audience. Our job is to keep people fascinated and on the edge of their seats, but none the wiser by the end of the play. In terms of joys? Working with good people is always the be-all-end-all, isn’t it? Most plays, I find, live or die on whether or not the performers are working towards the same goal. I think it’s also nice to be a part of something where the only skill required is that of an actor. I don’t have to dance, sing, roller-skate. There’s nothing to hide behind really. Just dialogue and our wits. I can’t exaggerate what a relief that is to be able to say that.”
Doubt is a well crafted, suspenseful thriller that poses questions on such a personal level that any decisions made about its ending will rest with the individual. It is a story that will appeal to both young and old. It really is drama at its best.
For Humphris, it’s a modern play, crisp, to the point, but it has all the old-fashioned drama that he remembers plays used to have when he was a kid. “Back when actors didn’t need abs to call themselves professional. There’s nothing tarted up I can offer here, but I can say: There’s no sex, blood, violence, torture, nudity… It’s just nuns and priests talking. And it won a Pulitzer. That’s how good it is. YOU try and win a Pulitzer with only that to work with.”
August 13 – 22