Proof can mitigate uncertainty, but it proves very elusive in Doubt, the thought-provoking drama by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley, now on stage at International City Theatre (ICT) through Sept. 11.
Directed by caryn desai [sic], this exceptional production– about a nun’s conviction that a priest is seducing a young student at their school– does justice to the rich, eloquent language and moral complexities of the play.
The stage itself, beautifully designed by Christopher Scott Murillo, offers a fitting forum for the drama to unfold. Divided into three parts– a nun’s principal office, a priest’s pulpit and a school’s fountain courtyard– that also fit together as one whole in the triangular shape of a church, the set is as much part of the texture of the play as the actors. At the center is a stained-glass depiction of the Archangel Michael holding scales and a sword, reflecting the ideas of justice and persecution that emerge in the play. In an effective directorial move, Father Flynn’s (Michael Polak) sermons are directed at the audience, the fourth wall still intact but used as part of the stage.
The exacting delivery of dialogue and precise stage direction match the nuanced details of the set. Michael Polak as Father Flynn plays his active role with enthusiasm, alternately sermonizing (confidently, though a bit speedily), coaching boys in basketball and meeting with the other two main characters, both nuns. The severe and conservative religious costuming that cuts no corners and defines their respective roles well also challenges the actors to add extra expression to their faces and voices, which they all do effectively. Erin Anne Williams as Sister James, a young nun and newly minted teacher, is so sincere one forgets she’s wearing a habit.
Of the excellent actors, Eileen T’Kaye is especially convincing as the formidable Sister Aloysius; she doesn’t just act, she practically is Sister Aloysius, which is why the audience might react to her as if she’s the Wicked Witch of the West, the “mean” one when contrasted with the others. As school principal, she is eagle-eyed, sharp-witted, highly disciplined and doesn’t hesitate to speak clearly and directly, often with biting sarcasm and usually correctly, about how things should be done. So when she senses something terribly wrong about the attention newcomer Father Flynn is paying to the young boys in the school, and one boy in particular (who happens to be the school’s first African-American student), she is driven to act out of her conviction.
The confrontations between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are like watching a tennis match played on a tightrope between uncertainty and belief, with neither character retreating or falling. Caught in the middle is young Sister James, whose naivety comes with a warmth not outwardly apparent in Sister Aloysius, winning her the audience’s sympathy, especially when combined with Father Flynn’s idealistic (or is it manipulative?) support of her passion and caring as the new way to teach (this is 1964, after all, and times they are a-changin,’ even in Catholic schools). The audience is kept in suspense about who is right as our feelings and beliefs are pushed and pulled by the dynamic among the three.
Then, adding whole other dimensions to the conversation is a scene between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller, mother of the boy in question and played to the fullest by Tamika Simpkins. Masterfully weaving in factors of race, domestic violence, homosexuality and survival to the issue of abuse, the heated discussion only further solidifies Sister Aloysius’s cause. She makes no distinction between righteousness and doing the right thing, but at what cost?
As you walk through the lobby afterward, continuing to grapple with this impactful play’s explorations of fairness and principle, you will be invited to drop a marble in one of two glass bowls representing whom you believe, Sister Aloysius or Father Flynn. As you decide where to place your marble, you might pause and consider (as the characters in this play do so well) the motives behind your belief and whether your conviction is indeed beyond doubt.
Doubt is performed at International City Theatre, 330 East Seaside Way, through Sept. 11. Shows are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $47 to $49. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 436-4610 or visit ictlongbeach.org.