DOUBT: Controversial and Timely Tale at WST’s Independence Studio on 3

by Ginger Agnew

Jeffrey Coon and Ellen Tobie in DOUBT - A PARABLE at Walnut Street Theatre. (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

Ripped from the headlines, much like a popular television series proclaims, DOUBT – A PARABLE, currently at Walnut Street Theater’s Independence Studio on 3, seems eerily familiar. A Pulitzer Prize winning play, later a film earning a host of Oscar nominations for its heavy hitting cast and writer, DOUBT – A PARABLE explores the relationship of faith vs. conviction through the lenses of those who don vestments of trust. Seeds of suspicion, denial, and of course, doubt, fuel this controversial and yet all too common tale of the abuse and misuse of power. Hiding behind faith and the outward display of holiness, the characters in this play clash in an archetypal conflict. Set in 1964 at a religious school in the Bronx, this tale plays out almost seamlessly with the passage of time noted by a change in color of the priest’s robes, and the covering of rose bushes.

From the first sermon, delivered from an ornate wooden pulpit, the priest, Father Flynn (Jeffrey Coon), connected with the audience with his boyish energy and powerfully charming manner. His relaxed nature was in stark contrast to the principal, Sister Aloysius (Ellen Tobie), who delivered a spinsterish, bordering on cold-blooded, character. Humor was the dichotomous saving grace of Sister Aloysius. Coon marvelously and delicately channeled the darker nature of Father Flynn. Tobie allowed the audience a peek into the humanity of Sister Aloysius, during more conversational scenes with a teacher, Sister James (Karen Peakes) in the principal’s sparsely decorated office. Sister Aloysius delivered biting sarcasm, played to its fullest by Tobie, while setting the plot in motion.

The opening scenes, developing the camaraderie between Sister Aloysius and Sister James were constructed and performed to allow the audience ample opportunity for laughter. Peakes, as Sister James, gave the team an almost whimsical tone with her wide-eyed innocence and ability to ‘love the one she’s with’. The intensifying puzzlement and despair of Sister James was developed well by Peakes. The audience grew comfortable with the authentic, multi-dimensional characters prior to the delivery of the continuing devastating blows of the plot. Mrs. Muller (Kaci M. Fannin), was the only non-clerical character in the show. Fannin delivered a compelling performance, as a character battling a multitude of devils. Shedding real tears, Fannin increased the intimacy and intensity while reminding us of the immediacy of the suspected situation. Adding an interesting touch, an additional character, who is integral to the plot though not seen or credited, exists only on the cover of the Playbill.

A vocal audience, clearly in sync with the situations in which the characters found themselves, made the experience feel like a community coming together in support or condemnation as warranted. The performances by the all Equity cast were powerful and heartfelt. Costuming, by Julia Poiesz, was authentic. There was a small issue with costuming in that bonnets worn by the nuns hid important reactions from time to time. Here and there the actors lost the ‘in the moment’ tension. Body tension and vocal tension in opposition to the language of the playwright, and the building strain under which the characters are operating, made the arc of a few scenes very slightly less authentic. Hands casually draped over a purse made the innate tension of being called into the principal’s office just a bit less believable. But, this is nitpicking and does nothing to detract from the beauty and poignancy of the performances in DOUBT – A PARABLE.

Making the most of the small black box space, the set, by Glen Sears, was stationary with four scenic areas. Within a very small stage area there existed an office, outdoor garden, church pulpit and gymnasium. Choral music filled the small space prior to the show. Each scenic transition occurred after a plunge into blackness, with music of a wide variety accompanying each shift. Once the stage was lit again, the audience was startled at least once with the position of the actor.

Seating is at a premium in this theater. Not a seat was empty, and those who had not reserved advance tickets took a chance that they might not be admitted.

This 1 1/2 hour play, performed without intermission, is sure to leave each person in attendance with more questions than answers. Is DOUBT – A PARABLE, timely or timeless? What is doubt? Who should have it? What should be in doubt? How is doubt manifested? Each audience member is responsible for forming an opinion and will undoubtedly use reflection, meditation, or prayer to be the ultimate judge.

By John Patrick Shanley
Directed by John Peakes
March 27 – April 15, 2012
Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3
825 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA
215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787

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