Impressive performances in this taut, 80-minute production probe larger themes than the play suggests.
By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
I've seen three productions of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer- and Tony-Award winning Doubt. The Lantern Theater Company's production is the only one that hasn't projected the ambiguity of the title onto the conflict itself. And this choice generates a taut, 80-minute evening of intense, thought-provoking drama.
Shanley set his 2004 play in 1964, at a Catholic middle-school in the Bronx that recently admitted its first African-American student (an unseen character). The popular, progressive priest Father Flynn (Ben Dibble) protects the boy from the hostilities of other students and the community.
The head nun and school's principal Sister Aloysius (Mary Martello), sees their relationship in a much different light. Armed only with the certainty of her suspicions, the plot builds around her backdoor sleuthing to prove Flynn a danger to the school's children.
Past productions, and even the play itself to some degree, hedge bets on Flynn's guilt by highlighting the conflict between Flynn and Aloysius' differing views on education and the role of the church.
But not here. Director Kathryn MacMillan's smart production transforms Dibble's natural wholesomeness into something sinister with sideways glances and wounded vanity. Martello dominates the stage, her cold,unflinching nerve both intimidating and heroic.
Rather than see her certainty shaken, we witness Aloysius suffer by "stepping away from God" to battle evil. And to Martello's great credit, she shows the cracks in the iron wall of conscience that whistle-blowers endure.
And this is right. If Doubt should serve, in Shanley's subtitle, as a parable, then it must also instruct. By establishing Flynn's guilt through Dibble's creepy performance, and his weepy last words, MacMillan provides this opportunity, letting the play provoke not the easy riddle of innocence or criminality, but the harder questions of how can we build better institutions to protect those they serve.
Because opacity and in-house protectionism of wayward members and authority figures has not solved the problem, whether for the Catholic Church, Hollywood or college and professional football. And what matters the punishments meted out (or in Penn State's case, retracted), if wrongdoers can still operate behind closed ranks?
This is one play that can motivate questions and change. And to do so in a production that bristles with explosive personal conflict only amplifies the credit that MacMillan and this phenomenal cast deserve.
Doubt. Through February 15 at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts. Tickets: $22 to $39. Information: 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org