by Kimberly Harper
“What do you do when you’re not certain?” That’s the opening line to John Patrick Shanley’s play about doubt and misgivings, and the lengths to which we will go to feel vindicated. It’s Rhode Island’s professional premiere of the show and it’s a good one.
Sister Aloysius is the principal of a parochial elementary school in the 1960s. Cold, unyielding in her beliefs and old fashioned, she is set up against the young and optimistic Sister James, who has not yet been burnt out by the frustrations of teaching eighth grade, and the well-liked Father Brendan Flynn, who is trying to bring the church into the modern age following the Second Ecumenical Council.
Who knows precisely why Sister Aloysius decides Father Flynn is a danger to the boys in the school. She has some suspicions and some circumstantial evidence – if you can even call it that – but from there springs a certainty that this man must be removed. She drags James, Flynn, and even one student’s mother, into the witch hunt before the play’s stunning conclusion. If you’re hoping for answers, stop, because you don’t get them, but there’s enough in the text to allow you to draw your own conclusions, albeit in either direction. It’s a show that’s bound to provide lengthy after-curtain discussions over drinks if you’re so inclined.
Director Amiee Turner has given us the perfect Sister Aloysius. Actress Donna Sorbello infuses her character with just enough empathy for Sister James that we can’t write her off entirely, but enough strength that we also can believe she is a formidable opponent for Greg London’s Father Flynn. Tall, stern faced, and imposing, London initially came across as a little too intimidating, but by the end of the show, he becomes much more three dimensional, and by extension, his innocence more plausible. That’s brought home in one particular garden scene with Sister James late in the show. He and Aloysius’ confrontation in her office is enough to give you chills. Neither of these people are to be trifled with.
Caitlin Davies as Sister James does a good job appearing meek and sweet. I would have liked to see a little more strength from her in certain scenes, but you can certainly believe her character is one that’s likely to be pushed around by her superiors. And Lovely Hoffman as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the only black child in the school, is absolutely amazing. She only has one scene, but it’s possibly the most powerful one in the show, where she must explain to Sister Aloysius that things aren’t always, can’t always, be as black and white as one might like. The two of them together are magnetic.
The show is done in a single act, running about 90 minutes, on a single set that combines a small garden, large sanctuary, and Sister Aloysius’ office. Designed by Erik D. Diaz, the set is one of OSTC’s best. Lighting plays a crucial role in setting the right tone, and David Sexton succeeds in lending the right mood to every scene.
“Doubt,” we are told, is a parable, and like the parables in the Bible, it’s one we can relate to with a little consideration on our part. On its surface, this is a story about one of the biggest scandals to plague the Catholic Church, but the themes of gossip, jealousy, intolerance and personal conviction are ones for the ages. If you’ve got a spare evening, it would be well spent seeing this show.
“Doubt” runs through Nov. 20 at Ocean State Theatre Company, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets range from $24 to $39 and may be obtained at the theater box office, by calling (401) 921-6800, or online at oceanstatetheatre.org.