Review: 'Doubt' at Westport Community Theater

John P. McCarthy

OnStage New York / Connecticut Critic

Westport, CT – John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Tony and Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “Doubt” ought to be – and is, according to a quick web search – a mainstay of amateur theatrical societies. Besides treating universal and perennial themes, it’s not onerous to stage. There are only four characters; the roughly hundred-minute runtime makes an intermission superfluous; and most of the action is confined to the principal’s office of a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx, and the courtyard/garden between the school and the other parish buildings.  

Shanley cleverly eliminates the need to re-create additional spaces by having the priest at the heart of the play, Father Brendan Flynn, deliver two sermons to the audience, thus turning them into his congregation and the theater into the church’s interior. Likewise, audience members become stand-ins for boys inside the school gym whom Flynn, as their basketball coach and spiritual advisor, lectures on the importance of sinking free-throws and keeping their fingernails clean. 

As comparatively straightforward as it is to mount, “Doubt” does put tremendous pressure on the acting ensemble. In particular, substantive and intelligent performances are needed from the portrayers of Sister Aloysius – the shrewdly dogmatic principle of St. Nicholas Church School –and Father Flynn, the open-minded cleric and teacher she suspects of having interfered with a male student, the school’s lone African-American enrollee. 

Awareness of how superbly Cherry Jones and Eileen Atkins limned Sister Aloysius on Broadway only boosts the intimidation factor, as does knowing that four actors from the 2008 film version Shanley directed – Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis – were nominated for Oscars. 

The two leads in Westport Community Theatre’s production got off to somewhat bumpy starts on Saturday night, but once they found their respective footings demonstrated they were up to the challenge. As Flynn, T. Sean Maher appeared to lose his lines during the opening scene, a sermon on the topic of doubt. And Susan Stanton was quite tentative early on yet soon hit her stride as Aloysius. 

Kristin Gagliardi gives a whiff of hysteria to Sister James, the young, idealistic nun who gets entangled in Aloysius’s campaign to make Flynn admit he acted inappropriately. Lastly, it’s a shame that in her only scene as the purported victim’s mother, Tondrea Mabins rushes and doesn’t let the character’s startling reactions to the situation resonate.

Director Kevin Pelkey, who also designed and built the scenery, could have done more to help his cast vary the rhythm of their line deliveries and therefore the tempo of the scenes. With the exception of Ms. Mabins’ nervous exchange, everything has the same steady, deliberate pace. It leaves the impression that the actors are more focused on remembering their next lines than on listening and reacting to one another. 

The harm is minimal, however, since Shanley’s text is clearly conveyed and readily apprehended.  A major reason “Doubt” succeeds is that the playwright informs it with ample detail and authenticity, having attended a school like St. Nicholas in the Bronx circa 1964, when the play takes place. He provides an accurate snapshot of the Church at a point in its history when change was in the air due to the reforms of Vatican II as well as impending unrest in society-at-large. 

Of course the play was timely when it premiered in 2004 considering all that was being revealed then about the clergy abuse scandals in America and elsewhere. Yet the relevance of “Doubt” to the Catholic Church in 2017 is also striking. A relatively liberal Pope from South America seems bent on shaking things up by exhibiting more compassion and less doctrinal rigidity than believers and non-believers alike are accustomed to getting from the Holy Father. And he’s meeting resistance from more traditional or conservative members of the Church hierarchy. 

“Doubt” can only to stand the test of time if it is compelling from a dramatic standpoint and in my opinion it is (and will endure) thanks to the psychologically acute portraits Shanley draws of his two antagonists. Sister Aloysius is reacts to her own misgivings and wavering belief by becoming unreasonably, and sometimes humorously, strict about discipline and rule following. Like a despot, she pays an inordinate amount of attention to seemingly petty matters. She has become a fundamentalist but is really just pretending to be certain in order to cloak and counteract her internal doubts. On the other side, it’s eminently plausible that a priest who has physically molested or exploited another human being -- especially a powerless, isolated child -- might try to justify his behavior by espousing an interpretation of Christianity and the Gospel message that emphasizes love, joy and forgiveness (with minimal penance). 

This is not to imply that Father Flynn’s guilt is established or that Sister Aloysius has no positive or noble motives for doggedly pursuing him. The evidence against the priest is circumstantial at best. And although Aloysius may be out to get him, that doesn’t mean she’s not sincere in wanting to protect children from predation. Also in her defense, she has little choice but to take the indirect, devious approach that she does. Given what we know about how the Church was structured and frequently operated at the time, her claim that if she went through the proper channels (i.e., informing the pastor of St. Nicholas parish) the matter would be swept under the rug seems unassailable. This speaks to a major theme of the play: Sexism. Owing to the patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church, nuns have long been treated like second-class citizens as compared to male religious.    

Finally, “Doubt” will always be pertinent because of its tacit endorsement of the legal concept of due process and its implicit warning regarding the dangers of rushing to judgment without the benefit of facts and evidence. For all these reasons, “Doubt” is as sure-fire, foolproof, and instructively rewarding a play as one can imagine. You can’t go wrong seeing it. 

“Doubt: A Parable” runs through February 26th at Westport Community Theatre, Westport Town Hall, 110 Myrtle Avenue One, Westport, CT. Pictured are Kristin Gagliardi, Susan Stanton and T. Sean Maher