'Doubt' Devastates

by Alexandyr Kent
The Shreveport Times
November 13, 2008
akent@gannett.com

"Doubt" arrived at The Capri Theatre on Wednesday with the power to upend the conscience.

River City Repertory Theatre presents John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama with a conviction of character that is at once spellbinding and revolting. Being that the play is about the danger of moral certainty, these words are chosen as pure praise. This "Doubt" is a gripping and devastating achievement.
    Set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, the story is about a crusading principal, Sister Aloysius, who comes to suspect that Father Flynn has abused a young black student. She has scant evidence but presses her suspicions with a monstrous tyranny of conviction.
    Though the play can be superficially read as a biting commentary on the abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, "Doubt" isn't, at its core, an argument about the fault of a particular religion or world view.
    It is rather -- as its full title, "Doubt, a Parable," suggests -- an examination of the dangers of moral certitude. It advances the notion that one's personal views -- moral, political or social -- too often become grounds for declaring oneself judge, jury and executioner. Put another way, it's about an American society that insists on communicating in irreconcilable rights and wrongs. In such a place, there is no room for doubt, give and take or sincere inquiry into perplexing moral crises.
    This production gets all of this. It presents the conflict between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn with unrelenting tension.
    As the stern, unforgiving, self-righteous principal, Barbara Acker is the astounding centerpiece of this show. Her performance anchors every emotion, manipulates every response and draws us into a pursuit of truth in which we feel helpless and blindsided.
    Even if Sister Aloysius's accusations of impropriety prove true, we feel sickened by witnessing her bully-like tactics. Are we, too, so unforgiving in our convictions? Are our moral judgments also clouded by the fog of self-held truths?
    Logan Sledge is equally strong as Father Flynn. He is initially a charismatic, sympathetic and forgiving character who sermonizes about the importance of entertaining doubt. But as he's drawn into Sister Aloysius's suspicion, he fights. He protests heroically. He defends his conviction that he did nothing wrong in providing solace to a boy who struggled and needed guidance.
    Pressed harder by the principal, Father Flynn's outward virtues give way to something more tragic. Perhaps the virtuous aren't who they seem, we begin to suspect. But is anyone right to pursue these suspicions alone?
    There are no easy answers.
    The play's doubtful observers are young Sister James, the boy's teacher, and Mrs. Muller, the boy's mother.
    Charity Schubert offers a vivid, heartrending portrayal of Sister James. She begins as a hopeful teacher bullied by Sister Aloysius into becoming a witness to the priest's indiscretion. "It is so unsettling to look at people with suspicion," the innocent tells us. And we witness her unsettled feelings materialize in the tension of her eyes and the nervousness of her encounters with Father Flynn. The play tells us Sister James misinterprets doubt as weakness, and Schubert fully illustrates that.
    Angelique Feaster's performance as the mother also is notable and convincing. Called into the principal's office, she's unwilling to accept the accusations as truth because, right or wrong, they can only harm her son if they come to light. We feel sympathy for a victim drawn into a crusade she's reluctant to join.
    Patric McWilliams directs and designs the hit with the aid of lighting designer Tristan Decker. It's a show that feels powerful, looks razor sharp and communicates its themes with an absolute clarity of purpose. What a telling irony there is in a work of theater that convinces us so thoroughly that we prize conviction too much.