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By Donald V. Calamia
This season, area theatergoers have been treated to a rather unusual experience: three competing professional productions of the same Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama. While some industry observers - and even this cranky critic - initially thought that a trio of Doubts was a bit much for such a small and incestuous market, the result has actually been a fascinating experience for critics, artists and audiences alike.
The show's appeal is easy to explain: It's fairly topical (its 2004 premiere was in the midst of the child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church), it has wonderfully challenging roles and playwright John Patrick Shanley has provided all the raw materials to build a powerful production that - if staged correctly - leaves the audience in doubt about what they've just witnessed.
And that's exactly the result of the third and final production of Doubt that opened Feb. 29 at Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre.
Set in a Catholic grade school in 1964, Shanley's story explores to what lengths a principal (Sister Aloysius) will go to remove a man she believes is a threat to her young charges (Father Flynn). With little proof except a lifetime of experience to guide her, Sister Aloysius believes Flynn is involved in an inappropriate relationship with an eighth grade boy - the school's first and only black student. The priest denies it, of course. And the boy, who has no friends at the school, idolizes the man. But the no-nonsense nun thinks otherwise. So she embarks on a bold scheme to reveal the truth.
So did he do it? Just like in real life, Shanley offers us no easy answers (nor even THE answer) - and half the fun is asking other audience members that deceptively simple question.
And as my eavesdropping after the opening night performance revealed, director John Seibert and his actors have done their jobs exceedingly well.
What Seibert has discovered in Shanley's script - and delivers - is its humanity. Nothing in his production is either black or white; no character is either good or evil. Instead, he and his actors explore the depths of their characters - and they succeed, because it's often what's NOT said that reveals the truth.
That's especially true of Sister Aloysius. A tough-as-nails drill sergeant - the type that helmed many Catholic schools back in the day - Jan Radcliff's riveting performance also offers us glimpses of what hides behind her face-of-stone. And when she destroys Sister James' innocence - she's the black student's teacher - we come to understand why she believes it had to be done. (The unexpected comedic moments are also exceptionally well played.)
Likewise, the reconstruction of Sister James from bubbly naivete to disillusioned (and reluctant) co-conspirator is nicely crafted by Molly Thomas. So, too, is the role of Mrs. Muller, the child's fiercely protective mother, by Tammie Harris.
Some of the finest moments of the season, however, are the clashes between the principal and the priest. As Father Flynn, Jon Bennett - who has the classic look and presence of a young, handsome and enthusiastic priest of the immediate post-Vatican II era of the church - seems totally stunned by the nun's accusations, yet he's more than willing to pull rank to save his reputation. Their battles will leave you breathless.
The show's one flaw comes in the play's final moments; it simply isn't believable. (Apparently it's endemic to the script, since none of the three productions made it work.)
The set by Daniel C. Walker will give nightmares to every student who ever spent time stewing in the principal's office. (It's that real.) Will Myers' sound design is also excellent, as is the inventive lighting design by Janine Woods.
(As an aside, the second most popular topic after the opening night performance focused on the wedding ring Bennett forgot to remove until about half way through the show. Trust me: We current and former Catholics noticed!)
Comparisons between and among the productions at BoarsHead Theatre, Detroit Repertory Theatre and the Detroit Repertory Theatre are inevitable, of course - and tons of fun. So watch for details of an online interactive discussion between Lansing State Journal critic Bridgett Redman and me coming soon!
At Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Thu.-Sun., through April 13. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0681 or www.performancenetwork.org
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