The matter of sexual abuse in the Church is a volatile and hot-button issue. However, as demonstrated in John Patrick Shanley’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Doubt, the explosive circumstances surrounding this serious subject is not always clear cut.
In Doubt, we are presented with a simple, yet complicated question – Who do you believe? Is it Father Flynn, the charismatic priest of St. Nicholas parish or the rigid, upright St. Nicholas Church School principal Sister Aloysius?
The plot is straightforward – Sister Aloysius (Betsy Aidem) has strong suspicions of Father Flynn’s (Eric Bryant) inappropriate behavior towards a student. She confides in the pupil’s teacher, Sister James (Kerstin Anderson), asking her to report any dubious conduct. The principal also calls in the student’s mother (Sharina Martin), seeking whatever possible incriminating information she can provide. In the end, a confrontation between the two protagonists provides closure…to a degree.
Shanley has skillfully crafted a drama that starts off slow and deliberate as characters are introduced and subtleties grow into outright accusations. Hard fast evidence is in short supply. Feelings and undocumented judgements are substituted for facts. This is a cat and mouse game that produces constantly shifting allegiances leaving audience members persistently in doubt about guilt and innocence. Injecting race into the scenario adds a layer of complication that only heightens the stakes at hand.
The uniformly fine cast is led by Betsy Aidem as the highly judgmental, take-no-prisoners Sister Aloysius. The actress comes across as someone not to be taken lightly or to cross. Yet, she lets seep into her portrayal a level of uncertainty that puts her actions and motivations up for question too. Eric Bryant, is playful and gregarious as the fresh-faced priest, Father Flynn. However, he also shows glimpses of anger and a possible dark side to his character.
The two other performers in the show are critical to the production’s dramatic tension. Kerstin Anderson’s Sister James is well-meaning, naïve, an innocent vessel, and unwitting pawn in the struggle for the soul of St. Nicholas’ parish. As she is swayed back and forth in her allegiance, she becomes the moral compass of the play.
Sharina Martin, the mother of the pupil in question, deftly portrays a parent in crisis. She is a jumble of mixed emotions and attitudes - conciliatory, protective, and combative.
Director David Kennedy helms this taut, 75-minute production with an experienced hand. He allows the action to unfold at a measured pace, meticulously building up to the clash of wills and righteousness. He has utilized Charlie Corcoran’s minimal set design – a desk and chair – which constantly shifts around the almost barren stage, as a way to compel the audience to see this unfolding drama at various angles.
Doubt, a thought-provoking production, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through November 21.