“Doubt: A Parable” won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for its questions about the nature of moral certitude, as audience members had to decide whether the priest, Father Flynn, was a serial predator allowed to go unchecked by a corrupt Catholic Church.
Now onstage at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., John Patrick Shanley’s play is still relevant today in the wake of the recent Catholic Church scandals where clergy who sexually abuse victims have continued to grow in number, causing a worldwide crisis.
While those scandals may cause audience members to have far less uncertainty, in the able hands of Studio Theatre Director Matt Torney, Father Flynn (a charismatic Christian Conn) still may be innocent to the core.
Equally, we grapple with whether the morally straight nun, Sister Aloysius (a superb Sarah Marshall), is spot-on in her suspicions of Flynn, who may be sexually abusing a lonely young schoolboy whose father beats him because of the boy’s “nature.” Or is the nun waging a smear campaign against a priest who only is attempting to show love toward the boy in the wake of the church’s Vatican II reforms which championed a more inclusive and engaging church?
Conn and Marshall brilliantly keep the audience on edge in this beautifully acted production where judgments about the Catholic Church and predator priests continue to easily polarize sides. As Father Flynn, Conn is compelling as the parish priest at the fictional St. Nicholas Church and School who argues that he is only carrying out the wishes of the church that is attempting to humanize its image. Before Vatican II, Catholics were not allowed to pray with other Christians, and priests conducted mass with their backs to the congregation rather than facing them.
Additionally, before Vatican II, priests were not encouraged to outreach to the local community and participate in such activities as taking boys on camping trips, out for ice cream, etc.
Marshall, as Sister Aloysius, is a no-nonsense school principal who is committed to upholding the morals of church and is not open to the new ways. She harshly critics a younger teacher, Sister James (the wonderful Amelia Pedlow) for being too happy around her students. She discourages students from using ballpoint pens, which she believes encourages children to be lazy. When Father Flynn suggests that the yearly Christmas pageant be made friendlier by including a secular song, like “Frosty the Snowman,” she cringes at the thought because the character is pagan.
Sister Aloysius obeys her vows, but when she suspects Father Flynn of sexually abusing the first African-American student
to attend the school, she is determined to catch Flynn, at any cost. It will be a difficult task, however, in a world which she knows is governed by men, who often protect each other.
The play’s intensity increases when Sister Aloysius pushes Sister James to reveal any odd behavior on Father Flynn’s part. The fact that the boy was called into a private meeting with Father Flynn and comes back into the classroom with alcohol on his breath, is the proof that Sister Aloysius is certain that she needs.
Shanley adds a surprising twist to the story by having the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (a dignified Tiffany M. Thompson), turn her head to the allegations for reasons that she feels is in her son’s best interests. It is a cerebral moment and one of the highlights of the production.
“Doubt: A Parable” will leave you anguished, uncomfortable and questioning your pre-judgments and faith. Most of all, you will be bothered by the lack of surety and the elusiveness of the truth.
“Doubt: A Parable” ends on an almost heartbreaking note, with certainty never resolved. The play runs 90 minutes through Oct. 6. For tickets, visit studiotheatre.org.