WARWICK, RI – Ocean State Theatre Company’s production of “Doubt: A Parable,” rings familiar for members of the Catholic church, and those following its recent scandals vicariously, but the setting is the only solid ground the audience is likely to experience.
Set during the civil rights era in 1964 in a Catholic School in the Bronx, it could have easily been set in Rhode Island or Massachusetts, the parish community primarily of Italian and Irish descent.
“It looks like a church,” said one attendee as she entered and saw the stage. “I think that’s the idea,” said the usher. The set design, spotlighting during different scenes the principal’s office and an exterior garden, featured architectural columns, a pulpit and a stained glass window, suggest the interior of a large Catholic church. Lighting through the other windows, suspended from the ceiling, effectively suggested sunrise and sunsets.
“It is an easy play to watch, but, boy, is it a hard play to digest,” said OSTC’s artistic director Amiee Turner during her introduction. The playwright Shanley echoes this sentiment in his preface, printed in the playbill, “You may come out of my play uncertain.”
Directed by Turner and performed in one act, the play has only four characters; a Catholic priest, Father Flynn (Greg London); two Catholic nuns, school principal Sister Aloysius and teacher Sister James (Donna Sorbello, Caitlin Davies) and a parent of a 12-year old African American student (the first in the school), Mrs. Muller (Lovely Hoffman).
The playwright attended Catholic church school in the Bronx, and often, his main character, Father Flynn, whether standing on the pulpit addressing his congregation or giving basketball hoop shooting instructions to his students, talks to the audience as if they were those groups. Anyone of a certain age who attended a similar school in Rhode Island may have been having flashbacks during these scenes, fighting off the urge to cross themselves as Father Flynn ends his sermon with “In the name of the Father, and of the Son …”
The other characters, as well as Father Flynn in other scenes, interact with each other in the principal’s office and in the garden.
Besides the underlying accusations of inappropriate contact between the priest and the student, other themes of trust, morality, faith, and tolerance – a subject Father Flynn notes during his discussion with Sister Aloysius to be used for a future sermon.
The play opens with Flynn giving a sermon, asking “What do you do when you’re not sure?”
A time of change for the Catholic Church, as changes came down from Rome, it was also a time of change in American society. The trust Catholics had in the Church was sometimes shattered as the trust Americans had in the nation, its leaders and its future was also questioned, seeds of doubt planted.
When a student has returned to class from a private meeting with Father Flynn with alcohol on his breath, his demeanor changed, Sister James reports this to principal Sister Aloysius. Despite lack of proof, Sister Aloysius suspects inappropriate behavior has occurred.
During a confrontation with the priest, Father Flynn says that the student had drunk the communion wine and was given a stern warning. A seed of doubt is planted, and fostered by Sister Aloysius to others, including the boy’s mother, Mrs. Mutter, who later indicates that her son has been beaten by his own father for offenses not detailed but hinting that the child might be homosexual. Mrs. Mutter, perhaps in denial of her own doubt, hints that her son had to leave a prior school for similar reasons, and was sent to the Catholic school in hopes of graduating. “It’s just until June,” she says over and over. “You are the one forcing people to say things out loud. He might be doing some good too, did you ever think of that? Sometimes things aren’t just black and white,” says Mutter.
Another confrontation between the principal and the priest has him threatening to rid the school of the strict, humorless nun.
It is unclear whether Father Flynn is indeed guilty of the offenses, (does he have doubts of his own?), but when Sister Aloysius (bluffing, as it turns out) accuses him of a history of similar offenses, Father Flynn leaves the parish, and is removed to another – an all too familiar occurrence in the Catholic church. The issue of domestic abuse is also swept under the rug.
Having successfully exiled the priest, the final scene has Sister Aloysius, distressed, confessing to Sister James, that she, too, has doubts.
Although its focus is on a serious subject matter (surprisingly, race is a minor theme), a few lines got laughs from the audience, including references by Sister Aloysius to the teaching of penmanship and how art and music are a “waste of time” in her estimation.
The scenic designer for the production is Erik D. Diaz; lighting designer is David A. Sexton, costume designer Marilyn Salvatore and production stage manager is Robin Grady.
Doubt: A Parable will be presented at Ocean State Theatre through Nov. 20. Performances will be held Wednesday (except November 9), Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm, with matinees on Thursdays (except Nov. 17), Saturdays at 2 p.m. (except Nov. 5 & 12) and Sundays at 2 p.m. Conducting Conversations Live!, a free post-show discussion hosted by WCRI’s Mike Maino, will follow the 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, Nov. 6.
The theatre is at 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick, RI. Tickets are $34 for preview performances, $34-$49 for all other performances except Thrifty Thursday (Nov. 10) when all tickets are priced at a $10 discount ($24-$39). $25 “Rush” tickets are available on a limited basis one hour prior to curtain on the day of the performance.