Sunday, September 23, 2007

Powerful ‘Doubt’ will spur debate

"Doubt" at South Puget Sound Community College

published in The News Tribune, Sept. 21, 2007

The set is softly lighted with the warm glow of table lamps and sunlight through stained glass windows. It’s 1964, a time when the Catholic Church was modernizing as dictated by Vatican Council II. A simple altar sits at stage right. Father Flynn (Erik Endsley) steps up on the altar and announces that his sermon is to be on the subject of doubt. Both his sermon and the John Patrick Shanley play “Doubt” begin with the question: “What do you do when you’re not sure?”

There are no clear answers in this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. As the play slowly develops, increasing layers of doubt are brought into the light.

The central question: Is the young priest guilty of inappropriate actions with a teenage boy, Donald Muller, or is his accuser, Sister Aloysius (Trisha Hatfield-Graves) an embittered old nun who resents the modernization of the church and is quick to think the worst of Father Flynn because he epitomizes all the changes that are upsetting her once-secure world?

“Doubt” is a simple but compelling play with only four actors on stage, no set changes and no intermission. It runs an hour and 25 minutes. Everything is kept simple so the audience can focus on the thoughts and emotions of the four characters: Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius, Sister James (Ingrid Pharris) and Mrs. Muller (Necashaw “Nicci” Montgomery).

Credit this stark minimalism to director Donald Welch and scenic designer Tom Daurelio. The simple set consists of three set pieces: the altar, stage right; Sister Aloysius’ office, upstage center; and a serene rock garden in the priory yard, stage left. Changes of scene are accomplished by simply fading lights in and out.

Father Flynn loves working with young people and strongly believes in a personal touch. Sister Aloysius, principal of the church school, believes in stern discipline and thinks Father Flynn is coddling the children. “Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow. Mark my words,” she says.

Young Sister James wants to please everyone. In many ways, she is the most complex and well-rounded character in the play. She is caught between the warring nun and priest, both of whom are her superiors and both of whom she looks up to. She comes across as a bit scatterbrained and nave, but she is smarter than she seems. To convey all of that convincingly takes tremendous acting ability, and Pharris, who has been seen mostly in outlandish comedy roles, nails Sister James.

Reluctantly she reports to Sister Aloysius that she saw Father Flynn take the young boy, Donald Muller, into the rectory alone, and that when he came back to class he was acting oddly and had alcohol on his breath. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of sexually molesting the boy – although she has no hard proof. She calls a meeting and with Sister James as her witness she accuses him. He vehemently denies her accusations.

Further complicating the situation, we learn that the boy is the first black student in the school and the hope is that his success at the school will open the way to more racial integration.

Sister Aloysius calls in the boy’s mother to question her, with unexpected results as Mrs. Muller defends her son and demands to know why he, and not the priest, is being treated as the guilty party. (Montgomery is outstanding as the proud and stoic mother.)

The play starts slow. It is highly cerebral at first, but the emotions and tensions gradually build to a fever pitch toward the end. How it ends, of course, I cannot divulge. But I will say that the conclusion leaves the audience with more questions than answers. It is a play that should spark a lot of heated debate.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 30
WHERE: Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts, South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road S.W., Olympia
TICKETS: $15 general, $10 seniors, military and state employees, $5 students
INFORMATION: 360-596-5508,

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