How did People's Light and Theatre get John Patrick Shanley's

Doubt: A Parable

so wrong?

An examination of power, faith, and oppression at a Catholic school in the Bronx in the early 1960s, Doubt is a taut vision of the impending social turmoil of the era.

It won both a Pulitzer and a Tony in 2005, and it was adapted by Shanley into a 2008 film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. But under David Bradley's direction, it plays less like A-list film fodder than wax museum diorama.

Ceal Phelan's suspicious school principal, Sister Aloysius, faces off against Elizabeth Webster Duke's naive Sister James at center stage, arms stiff at their sides, delivering their lines directly at the audience.

Peter Pryor's beleaguered Father Flynn is frozen in profile while trying to convince Sister James that his private meeting with a young male student was innocent.

In slides Sister Aloysius from stage right for a surreptitious meeting with the boy's mother (Melanye Finister), who starts to explain her son's peculiar nature with "my boy is . . .," then stops midsentence, turns to the audience, and announces, "that way."

It's a ride on the Carousel of Plot Progress. Thanks to the director, Phelan, Duke, and Finister - much like their characters - are stuck chafing against a system designed to rob them of their impact. Phelan's Aloysius is kept alive, but only from the neck up, a problem when she's expected to release the whole narrative's repressed anguish in her final cathartic scene.

True doubt festers until it finds its way to the surface, having chewed through certainty's sinew. This production just doesn't evoke the repressed darkness necessary for suitable bursting.

If Bradley forbids the women their physical freedom, Pryor, usually a fine performer, denies them a character worth opposing.

He breezes through Flynn's homilies as if giving his congregation directions to Brooklyn. He asks Aloysius, "Am I a person, flesh and blood like you? Or are we just ideas and convictions?"

Sorry, but Bradley's Flynn is barely an idea.

He's not fun-loving or gentle enough to seduce a student, let alone Sister James.

Mostly, it seems, he's in a hurry.

How can you tell neither Bradley nor Pryor really cares about this production? In a play that mentions the unusual length of Father Flynn's fingernails three times, Pryor's are short. Fellas, they're called Lee Press-Ons. Bet those nuns would be happy to buy you a set.

Doubt: A Parable

Through June 28

at People's Light and Theatre,

39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $29 to $48.

Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.

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