John Patrick Shanley’s estimable play “Doubt: A Parable” starts with an inherent disadvantage, but overcomes it in a way that’s thought-provoking and entertaining.
Audiences likely are familiar with sexual-abuse controversies that have rocked the Catholic Church for years and may not exactly be champing at the bit to wade through them again at the theater.
But Vienna Theatre Company’s production is not a harangue, blanket condemnation or salacious wallowing. It’s a mystery, contest of wills and reaffirmation of Catholic morals, which sometimes must be violated to serve the greater good.
How does one balance laudable principles such as faith, trust and compassion with brutal, hard-won knowledge that people often aren’t what they seem, especially when the stakes are high and they’re cornered? Is it OK to bend the truth to make a point in a sermon or to smoke out information from a wrongdoer?
There are only four cast members, so all must – and do – pull their weight.
Set in fall 1964 at a Catholic church and school in the Bronx, the play opens with Father Flynn (Bruce Alan Rauscher) giving an enigmatic sermon on doubt.
The action then moves to the office of jaded, hard-headed principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Gayle Nichols-Grimes).
Nichols-Grimes gives a bravura performance as a no-nonsense administrator who puts the fear of God in students for the sake of proper order and the youths’ own good. She is sarcastic, hard-nosed and determined as she pursues her objectives.
Sister Aloysius’s first task is to shake new eighth-grade teacher Sister James (Danielle Comer) out of her idealistic reverie and admonish her not to be gullible regarding her endlessly devious charges.
Comer is excellent as she vacillates between being duly deferential to her superior and attempting to advocate on her own behalf. She’s compassionate and forgiving, often to a fault.
Having been told to keep a sharper eye out for hidden dangers, Sister James returns a while later to inform Sister Aloysius that a student in her class recently was acting oddly and had alcohol on his breath.
The adult seen with him just before was Father Flynn, who in addition to giving earnest, folksy sermons is a popular basketball coach.
As Sister Aloysius attempts to discover what truly happened, the audience wonders if she’s just being paranoid or mean-spirited. Is it worth the potential damage to Father Flynn’s reputation if she makes accusations based on a hunch? What if she’s wrong? Will the church’s patriarchal hierarchy side with him out of long habit, even if he’s guilty?
Rauscher is outstanding as Father Flynn’s battle with Sister Aloysius escalates and the sharper, more ruthless edges of his personality emerge.
Jacquel Tomlin is tense and guarded as the mother of the young student in question, who is the first African-American to attend the school. She wants to protect him and suspects he’s “different,” as they used to say. If she can just get her son through this crisis, he can start afresh next year at a new high school.
The set by Steve Ross is divided exactly down the center – perfect for the either-or moral dilemma that unfolds. The left side of the stage is occupied by Sister Aloysius’s austere office, which features religious imagery, a bookcase, functional desk and some uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs in which miscreants and other visitors must sit. This room is all business.
The stage’s right side is a welcoming garden with attractive plants set against the school’s solid stone walls. This is where characters share heart-to-heart conversations, contemplate their actions and occasionally try to slyly wheedle information from each other.
Directed by Joanna Henry and produced by Laura Fargotstein, the play is tightly written, has realistic characters and centers around core values to which many pay lip service, but are essential for a functioning and just society.
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“Doubt: A Parable” runs through Nov. 6 at the Vienna Community Center Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees on Oct. 30 and Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. General-admission tickets cost $15 and are available at www.viennava.gov/webtrac, in person at the Vienna Community Center or before each performance, if available.
For more information, see the Website www.viennatheatrecompany.org.