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Covedale‘s Doubt Full of Tension and Conflict

Review by Doug Iden of Doubt: Covedale Theatre

Should the rock-ribbed convictions of one person, based upon unsubstantiated evidence, be allowed to besmirch the reputation of another? Can one individual act as investigator, prosecutor, jury, judge and executioner while accusing someone else of a heinous crime? What are the insidious ramifications of malicious gossip? What role did the Catholic Church play in sexual predation in the 1960’s? These, and other powerful themes, are addressed in the one-act drama Doubt which opened last night at the Covedale Theater. It’s one of those plays that you think a lot about afterwards.

In the play, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, principle of a Catholic elementary school, suspects and later accuses Father Brendan Flynn of plying a young student with wine and then seducing him. The tension is exacerbated since the boy is the only black student in the school which accelerates the titanic struggle between the two strong-willed personalities.

Winner of the Tony award for drama and later adapted as a successful movie, John Patrick Shanley’s dialogue crackles with tension and observations about societal and personal norms. Shanley, who specializes in Irish plays, uses an unusual structure by allowing Father Flynn to present his case to his congregation (the audience) through a series of sermons about intolerance and the evils of gossip rather than through dialogue or soliloquies. He defends himself rigorously through contentious confrontations with the intransigent Sister Aloysius but presents his case to us from the pulpit.

Another theme addressed is the style of teaching used in parochial schools of the day. Sister Aloysius is a harsh disciplinarian who believes in strict rules and regulations. Violations should be addressed quickly and severally. However, Father Flynn and Sister James, a young, possibly naïve teacher, both believe in a nurturing style and opening up the curriculum to allow exploration of the world beyond the hidebound religious teachings.

The centerpiece of the drama is Sister Aloysius portrayed by Martha Slater as the implacable purveyor of justice (in her own mind). She is the catalyst by forcing Father Flynn to divulge the reason for an unusual one-on-one meeting with the student which is the genesis of her convictions. Slater portrays Sister Aloysius as a religious zealot rooting out the perceived evil. Stater’s presentation is pinch-faced, abrupt, righteous, confrontational and very believable. Slater’s enunciation is impeccable as she hurls indignant verbal fireballs at the maligned priest with machine-gun fire rapidity (thanks to the brilliant dialogue by Shanley). There is no doubt that she believes overwhelmingly in the priest’s guilt but is he really guilty?

Rory Sheridan, as Father Flynn, starts with an equanimous nature, is caught flat-footed by the nun’s accusations but then fires back with ferocity. He aggressively disputes the implications through direction confrontations and indirect sermons to the audience. However, his steely resolve crumbles somewhat when the nun tells him that she had inquired about his previous posting which he left under a suspicious cloud. Both Slater and Sheridan are excellent in their respective roles.

There are two other characters playing pivotal roles in the drama including, Maggie Lou Rader as the young teaching nun Sister James, and the small but crucial role of Mrs. Muller, the mother of the potentially abused boy, played by Joy Rolland-Oba. Rader’s character is torn between the vicious attacks by Sister Aloysius and Sister James’ belief in the priest. She is horrified by the potential violations but acts as both a pacifier and, ironically, as the confessor for both the priest and the nun. Slater portrays the whipsaw emotions well as Sister James vacillates between the views of the combatants. Mrs. Muller has been called into a parent meeting with the nun who is trying to develop a definitive case against the priest. Rolland-Oba is, initially, perplexed but increasingly becomes incensed at the thought that her child (a lonely, frightened boy who has been abused by his father) is guilty of an indiscretion. The real victim in the play is the boy.

Kudos to Director Lindsey Augusta Mercer who moves the play along well despite the heavy themes and rollercoaster emotions. The set design (by Brett Bowling) is sparse, in keeping with the tone of the play, with only three set pieces which function as the stained glass exterior of the church and also, when swiveled, the pulpit, a garden and the nun’s office where most of the fireworks take place.

So, have no doubts about this show (we’ll have nun of that) and see Doubt at the Covedale Theater continuing through February 12.