During the past few seasons we’ve seen many heavily hyped plays from the contemporary American theatre that generally underwhelmed us. With John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt—winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play in 2005, soon to be a major movie with a dream cast of Seymour Phillip Hoffman and Meryl Streep—the Arts Club breaks that mold. This is the real thing: dramatically taut, thought-provoking, powerful and funny. Rachel Ditor’s exquisitely acted production challenges audience members to think carefully about the characters and situations on stage and their own ideological presuppositions.
The play is set in a neighbourhood church and Catholic junior high school in the Bronx in 1964. Alison Green’s striking set features huge stained-glass windows overlooking a large tree in a courtyard garden. If this is Eden, the young teaching nun, Sister James (Sasa Brown), most obviously tastes the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil and falls out of innocence. She’s torn between two warring characters, one of them certainly the serpent in this garden.
There’s Sister Aloysius (Gabrielle Rose), the stern, cynical, conservative principal of the school, who disabuses Sister James of her liberal notions. Art and dance are a waste of time, and “innocence,” Sister Aloysius warns her, “is a form of laziness.” On the other side stands the charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Jonathon Young), whose first sermon cites the recent death of President Kennedy. He’s a Sixties idealist, advocate of a more secular, personal, touchy-feely Church.
Sister Aloysius loathes Flynn and has decided that he’s a pedophile. She has no evidence but knows she’s right—after all, he “wears his fingernails a little long.” She constructs a purely circumstantial case around Flynn’s relationship with Donald Muller, the lone Black child in the school, and sets out to destroy him.
Shanley stacks the deck in favour of genial, reasonable Flynn and against repulsive Sister Aloysius. And the performers initially amplify those prejudices. Young’s Flynn is relaxed, charming and likable. Rose plays the closed-minded nun like Joe McCarthy in a habit. At times she even sounds like McCarthy, hissing her libelous poison.
But is it libelous? Is Father Flynn innocent? Doubts creep in. What about those horrible scandals involving abusive priests and children? Might it not be a good thing for someone to unmask a bad man even for utterly wrong reasons? Shanley never settles for easy answers. In a terrific scene late in the play Sister Aloysius tries to enlist Donald’s mother (a magnificent Michèle Lonsdale Smith), whose surprising responses add layers to the complexity.
This is the first must-see play of the fall and a great start to the Arts Club season. No doubt about that.