Sister James uses those two simple, but powerful words to describe her class’s reaction to Principal Sister Aloysius. And you know just what she means.
If you grew up in an era when nuns ruled Catholic schools with iron hands and yardsticks across the knuckles, but still reverently stood when a priest entered the room, you will feel right at home in All Kinds of Theatre and Southern Rep’s production of Doubt: A Parable. However, if you’re not familiar with Catholic Parish School and Church –is there anyone in New Orleans who isn’t? - you will nevertheless be intrigued by John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play.
This is a must-see production in every aspect of theatre. Script, set, lighting, sound, costumes, casting and execution of each expertly crafted line is immaculate. Carl Walker’s interpretation and direction of the one-act play are fine-tuned.
Set in a Bronx Catholic elementary school shortly after President Kennedy’s inauguration and the beginning of school integration, Doubt raises questions of inappropriate behavior between the young, energetic parish priest and the school’s first black student. Fueled only by her suspicions, an authoritarian older nun averts the Church’s hierarchy and established chain of command, methodically working to remove the priest from her school and parish.
Did he or didn’t he? At first, you think “yes,” then you think “no” and just when you are ready to make up your mind, the play’s action brings you to another level of indecisiveness. And just as parables in the Bible are thought-provoking life examples, Doubt raises a plethora of conscience rubbing questions. How far would you go to protect a child? Would you take an unprecedented risk even if you might be wrong? Would you close your eyes to potential danger if it meant a better high school or college for your child? Could you be a whistleblower? What if more nuns voiced their suspicions years a generation or two ago? Are all accused child molesters guilty? Doubt does not provide the answers – just the questions.
Jamie Wax as Father Flynn, the only male in the four-character script, is every parish’s popular, charming and good-looking priest. When dressed in flowing, rich vestments and delivering the script’s two major sermons on doubt and gossip, Wax is the epitome of priesthood. When confronted with Sister Aloysius’ suspicions, however, he is only a man outraged by allegations and a woman’s audacity to jeopardize his position. His ability to physically transform from a good priest to angry and perhaps, resigned, man is seamlessly outstanding.
Central character Sister Aloysius is a role that Clare Moncrief fulfills with frightening credibility. The products of Catholic schools, especially a generation or three ago, will appreciate her expressions as she looks over her glasses, fiddles with her rosary and sneaks a few minutes listening to a transistor radio. Moncrief’s attention to small details and strong delivery of the play’s best lines bring extra dimension to the role. Her delivery of a slight Bronx accent adds impact to the script but it’s her mannerisms and movement that bring the character to life. God forbid – you had a nun like that when you were in elementary school; God forbid – you did not have a nun like that looking out for you.
Andrea Frankle as young nun Sister James is pivotal to the plot, reflecting indecision and doubt throughout the production. When questioned about unusual behavior among her students, the young nun slowly registers understanding and perplexity as she reports circumstances and situations to Sister Aloysius. Although she is well-hidden beneath a nun’s habit, Frankle uses her face, hands – and real tears - to convey a wide range of emotions. While you never forget that she is playing a nun, she also demonstrates the conflicting position of a woman at the lower end of the power pole. Whether she’s chastised by Sister Aloysius for being too enthusiastic in her teaching or joyfully accepting Father Flynn’s explanations, Frankle is mesmerizing in this role.
Donna Duplantier is so good as Mrs. Muller that you want to slap her. The mother of the boy who might have been molested, her only concern is that her son remains in a good school and go on to a good high school. If he’s in harm’s way, it’s only for a few months she says, and beatings from his father are more hurtful. Duplantier is clear, crisp and commands your attention with her every on-stage motion. From fidgeting with her purse and gloves to her eye-to-eye conversations with Sister Aloysius, she depicts a driven mother who will not tolerate bad news if it interferes with her plan.
The technical and artistic aspects of Doubt are as equally impressive as the quality of the acting and directing. David Raphel’s set consists of two major pieces on a revolving stage, which moves quietly and almost unnoticeable. The brick-walled exterior of a Catholic school featuring a stained glass window and of course, a statue of Jesus and the interior principal’s office are expertly designed and constructed with keen attention to detail. Check out the worn and scuffed linoleum tile look in the office – you’ll flash back to a fifties kitchen or your old classrooms.
Although I have never seen pale blue vestments on a parish priest, Charlotte Lang’s costumes are soothing elements of this production. It’s nice to see nuns wearing long, black habits with their heads covered; it adds to their mystique and removes them from the real world, which intensifies the plot development. And do the elegant, shiny, multi-pieced vestments mask the inner priest? Mrs. Muller’s pillbox hat, gloves and suit – hanging just below the knees – are right out of the sixties fashion pages and exactly what a mother would wear when called to the principal’s office.
All Kinds of Theatre and Southern Rep have teamed up to bring an award-winning play to a New Orleans stage. The grade - “A+” with a Holy Ghost sticker.
Back Row Facts
Length of Play – 90 minutes with no intermission.
Language and Lewd Factor – no offensive language; the word molestation is never voiced; only alluded in a variety of euphemisms.
Family Fitness – an adult play, appropriate for high school students.
It’s a puzzlement – why do nuns in habits encourage us to sit up straight and pay attention?