B&E (Breaking & Entering) Theatre has mounted their inaugural production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable in The Church of the Holy Trinity. In ways both literal and lyrical, the setting resonates. Echoing throughout the space, voices seem both dignified and eerily desperate. The building itself conjures the vast, archaic shape of the Catholic Church that looms over this story.
The play takes us back to 1964, the Bronx, where tensions mount at St. Nicholas Catholic School. A new parish priest, Father Flynn (Brian Bisson) falls under the relentless scrutiny of the principal, Sister Aloysius (Deborah Drakeford). Enlisting the young, somewhat naive Sister James (Emma Nelles), she sets about validating her suspicions regarding Flynn’s inappropriate relationship to a troubled boy.
The only Black student, this boy Donald has been taken under Flynn’s wing. An incident with some Communion wine becomes the focal point of the case. Armed with only her certainty, Sister Aloysius sets in motion a contained investigation that throws intense personalities and local tensions into sharp relief.
This handful of characters wrestle with contrasting ideologies that are at once intimate and immense. With a society still reeling from President Kennedy’s assassination, Shanley frames their conflict within a specific historical context. The civil rights movement and Vatican II plans to reform the Church (to appeal to a contemporary, progressive culture) provide a vivid backdrop.
Shanley’s script is sharp as it gradually reveals the weight of each individual’s burden. Director Stewart Arnott maintains a compelling naturalism, focusing our attention on the nuances of inflection and body language. The actual playing area is quite contained, but the ominous reality of the church around us both expands and contracts our attention.
As the young, hip Father Flynn, Bisson is warm and charismatic. He embodies the tolerant, inclusive representation to which the modern Church aspires. His sermons and lessons give us a vivid glimpse into his genuine affection for people. His intense likability provides a comforting contrast to Drakeford’s cold, strong-willed formality. Caught in the middle, Nelles’s Sister James has an endearing, timid integrity.
The murky, elusive ideal of rightness is further obscured by the arrival of Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Kim Nelson). Dressed elegantly in what we assume is her best outfit, clutching at her purse for stability, Nelson is a striking portrait of maternal advocacy. Called in by Sister Aloysius, her attitude toward the situation and insights into her son’s precarious position confound Sister Aloysius and challenge our ethics.
Though she is an intimidating presence, we admire Sister Aloysius for her great resolve. The hierarchy and protocol of the Church are formidable obstacles. She must contend with an old boys’ club of institutional safeguarding. Even worse, in her quest to hold others accountable, she must examine her own righteousness.
Drakeford mines the text for the subtle vulnerabilities woven throughout, hinting at the awful, churning doubt she must act in spite of. Her final moment of confession to Sister James is heartbreaking and she earns it.
This is a riveting production of a great play. It would be shame to miss it.