Written by John Patrick Shanley, Doubt hit Broadway in 2005 and won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. It has since been adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. That pedigree is important to know because this is not the kind of show you can simply relax and enjoy. It’s a lean, 90 minute, one act play that involves the audience. Not in a “cast members dancing in the aisles” way, but in a “what would you do” way.
Doubt tells the story of the principal at St Nicholas Church School, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, trying to work with young Sister James to get to the bottom of her concerns about the relationship that Father Flynn has with one of the children. Martha Slater has the challenging role of Sister Aloysius, the strict disciplinarian who takes her job exceedingly seriously. Slater juggles spitfire dialogue with a tempered sense of decorum, often in the same scene. Rory Sheridan plays Father Flynn, the popular priest trying to make the church and school more open and friendly. His character, too, goes through a sometimes intense range of clashing emotions, and the scene where he’s first confronted is particularly well played by Sheridan. Maggie Lou Rader plays Sister James, a sincere, budding nun who loves her work, and the character the audience is most likely to identify with. She’s initially very hesitant to get involved, and when she realizes the magnitude of the (potential, alleged) issue, she begins losing sleep. You can hear her pain in nearly every line because she is now riddled with doubt. Also, even though her part is brief, Joy Rolland-Oba’s character of Mrs Muller plays a crucial role in the plot, and she has a lot to convey in her short time on stage. As the mother of the boy in question, who also happens to be the only black student at this Catholic school in the 1960s, she simultaneously plays a mama bear defending her cub and a pragmatic woman just trying to keep her family on the right path for a little while longer.
That’s the entirety of the physical cast, but the main character really is doubt itself. And while it can’t be seen, this production makes sure it can be felt by the audience more and more as the play goes on. Director Lindsey Augusta Mercer brings this up in her program notes, referencing a statement from the playwright that says “doubt requires more courage than conviction… because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite.” Mercer’s goal is to get the audience to not only feel the apprehension, the confusion, the fear, the uncertainty, the DOUBT that builds in this show, but also to then act on those feelings afterward by questioning their own beliefs and talking with others.
On the surface, producing Doubt at the Covedale is a somewhat unconventional choice in a season that started with Godspell and ends with My Fair Lady. The venue tends to run more traditional, mainstream productions. A tense, pensive play about child abuse in the Catholic church being produced in a theatre on Cincinnati’s west side could be seen as a tough sell. But after having sat in the audience, felt their reactions, and spoken with people afterward, producing Doubt at the Covedale is a choice that doesn’t feel inappropriate at all. The audience was able to relate to the minutiae of work and life at a parochial school, and though they were quiet when the show began, there was a much more palpable silence by the climax.
Overall, the minimal set works well. Small pieces for Sister Aloysius’ office, the church pulpit, and a statue in the garden take up stage right, center stage, and stage left, respectively. On the back of all of them is an outside portion of the church, and the set pieces are rotated by the cast as needed. One minor issue with the blocking: Sister Aloysius’ desk is positioned rather close to the wall of her office, and every time a character crossed through that narrow space, they had to slow down and slightly turn to step through it. No real office would leave such a small area to walk through. It was a trivial, but consistent, distraction.
The only other concern on opening night was the sound. There are a handful of cues in the show (a gust of wind, birds squawking) that come off more like harsh noises. Also, there were problems with Sister Aloysius’ microphone. It didn’t always pick up her words early on, then it started to occasionally rub the fabric of her habit, and during an intensely emotional moment at the end, it dropped out altogether. It was a disappointing way for an otherwise good show to finish, though Slater’s performance left the audience with no doubt about what her character is feeling.
Doubt, A Parable runs at the Covedale Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through February 12. Tickets are available by calling 513-241-6550 or going to the Covedale website, www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa