Encore Michigan

‘Doubt’ gives us plenty to think about at Open Book Theatre

Review November 03, 2018 David Kiley

TRENTON, Mich.–Certainty without proof is a problematic thing. It doesn’t fly in a court of law. But it can be valid in choosing political leaders, or not choosing them, and certainly when children are at risk.

In Doubt, A Parable, now playing at Open Book Theatre here, we encounter uber-Orthodox nun, Sister Aloysius–thin lipped, grim, ruler-wielding head of an elementary school, who is suspicious of thirty-something, handsome, charismatic Fr. Flynn. Her radar is beeping so loudly that she vaguely instructs the young perky Sister James to keep an eye on him.

In no time, Sister James reports back to Sister Aloysius that a child, the first and only African-American student in this Catholic school in the Bronx, came back from a one-on-one meeting with Flynn in the rectory moody, off-kilter and with alcohol on his breath.

The play, by John Patrick Shanley, debuted in 2004, not long after the country was awakened to the Catholic Church’s decades of cover-ups, shielding pedophile priests from prosecution. Instead, the church shuttled the priests from one parish to another to another to another.

Shanley grew up in Irish-Catholic New York City, the Bronx, attended Catholic church, was an altar boy and graduated from one of the city’s most storied Catholic high schools. Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s as he did, Shanley no doubt observed a stream of socially inept, or worse, priests who were accepted to seminary in an era where fewer and fewer men were choosing the priesthood as a vocation. Indeed, there is a line in the play that nods to this lowering of standards and the incentives to protect miscreant clerics.

Maggie Gilkes plays Sister Aloysius with just the right amount of stereotype as the disciplinarian nun. It’s not over-the-top or parody at all. In fact, Shanley, whether this sister is based fact for fact on an actual nun he knew, brilliantly gave her a life before the convent–she was married and her husband was killed in World War Two. Even without telling us, the rest of her story is evident on her face. She had a great love that was taken from her, and the only one who could replace him was God. She’s not bad, or jumping to conclusions, but rather employing the hard-earned life skills that a long, real life has given her. And though she had no children of her own, she considers the boys of this school as her responsibility. The kids fear her, but she commands respect by a look or the tone of her voice. Meghan VanArsdalen as Sister James, does a nice job of delivering on Shanley’s view of the young nun who is rooting for his warmer style of pastoral leadership, while also clinging to the piety that led this young girl to the nunnery.4`

Joe Sfair as Father Flynn is also extremely well cast by director Wendy Katz Hiller, as the good looking young priest who is not effeminate in the least. He is attractive in every way, as a modern priest embracing Vatican II and a more expressive inclusive style of pastoring. He’s the basketball coach, and wants to mentor these young boys. Shanley, though, gives Flynn a piece of business connected to his personal grooming that works perfectly as a metaphor for a predatory priest who is trained at getting his hooks into impressionable boys.

As of we didn’t have enough going on between the two nuns and Flynn, Shanley dials in another plot twist with the mother of the boy, played very ably by Krystle Dellihue, that rightly rattles Sister Aloysius, and the audience.

Doubt won a Pulitzer Prize for Shanley. I wish I could say that the play was exceptionally well-timed for 2004, and perfectly captures the shades of grey that can infuse a lot of allegations against predatory priests. I wish I could say that the play was a time-piece, capturing a moment in time from 20 years ago. But, it turns out that it is also perfectly and tragically timed for 2018 as new cases continue to arise, as in the current massive scandal in Pennsylvania and the dismissal of the former Cardinal of Washington DC from the College of Cardinals for credible charges of inappropriate sexual behavior. Sure, these charges are mostly about acts perpetrated many years ago. But the pain and trauma is current with victims. And cover-ups never go away until they have sunlight on them.

Doubt does not hit one over the head with the tragedy. Indeed, Shanley dials in humor, especially in the banter between the two nuns, exposing the funny stuff that unfolds between two sisters of two different generations. The playwright also never leaves us with certainty that Flynn is guilty. We, like the sister, have enough to go on to think he is. But we can’t be 100% sure. And so it is with most things in life.

But when it comes to children and the most vulnerable among us, if you see something, say something, like Sister Aloysius. Better yet, do something. Start by going to see this powerful story deftly presented and performed by Open Book Theatre.

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