“Doubt: A Parable” at the Cotuit Center for the Arts

“Doubt: A Parable” won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 2005 for its author, John Patrick Shanley, and it is easy to understand why, after seeing the Cotuit Center for the Arts’ current production of the play. The writing is superb, authentic, and often quite funny. The plot, deceivingly simple, invites each individual audience member to interpret it his or her own way. In fact, it was Shanley’s intent that the final act of the play be the continued discussion of it by audience members, each bringing their own biases and experiences to the task, and, ultimately, perhaps, understanding of the role that doubt and certainty play in our own lives.

The story, set in a small Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, where Shanley himself attended school, involves the suspicions of a nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the school principal, against the pastor, Father Brendan Flynn. Both try to win a young nun, Sister James, to their side, and another woman, Mrs. Muller, serves to shake up preconceived notions.

But there is no hard evidence, and it is this very lack of certainty about what we are watching makes the play so absorbing, intelligent, and satisfying.

The CCftA’s production is creatively directed by Joan Edstrom and well-acted by three veteran actors:  Cathy Smith as Sister Aloysius, Richard Martin as Father Flynn, and Bronwen Prosser as Sister James, and one newcomer, Brandy Power as Mrs. Muller.

Cathy Smith is wonderful as Sister Aloysius, rigid and quite sure of herself and of the rules that she has lived by for many years. She gives advice to Sister James with the assurance of one who has given the same advice year after year to countless naïve young nuns. She thinks Sister James is too gullible and insists that she be more skeptical of her students, to  act so that “Liars should be frightened of you and children could tell that you can see right through them.” Her job, she tells Sister James later, is “to outshine the wolf in cleverness.”

There is great humor in much of this. Sister Aloysius deplores the use of ball point pens, preferring fountain pens. Ball point pens require pressure to make the ink flow. “When they press down, they write like monkeys,” she says.

At the time, the winds of change brought by the Catholic Church’s 1962 Ecumenical Council were beginning to affect the neighborhood churches and their relationships with the community they served. Father Flynn represents his change, calling for a friendlier attitude toward the community, and secular carols to be included in the annual Christmas pageant. But is he, as Sister Aloysius contends, too friendly with one particular student?

Richard Martin is excellent in this role as a congenial, thoughtful, and caring Irish pastor, open to new ideas, including ball point pens. His opening sermon on “Doubt” sets the tone for the play. Referring to the recent assassination of President Kennedy, he recalls that there was something comforting in despair when it was shared by an entire nation. Most of the time though, he says, we bear our pain in isolation, burdened by doubt as to whether we are pursuing the right course.

Martin is very effective as the pastor: his sermons are compelling (I wanted to applaud after his retelling of the parable on gossip); his defense of his integrity believable, and his session with the young basketball players is splendidly natural.

I might have preferred a younger and more obviously naïve Sister James; Bronwen Prosser seems to have a knowing smile, rather than an innocent smile in the first scene in which Sister Aloysius seeks to guide her. But Prosser is a fine actress, and her Sister James is, indeed, her own woman, making her own decisions on whom to believe and how to run her life.

(Sister James was a real person in Shanley’s life, his first-grade teacher. She served as a consultant on the movie version of the play, which came out in 2008 with Amy Adams in the role of Sister James. Meryl  Streep played Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman was Father Flynn, and Viola Davis was Mrs. Miller—they changed the spelling of the name in the film.)

Brandy Power is a newcomer to acting. Mrs. Muller was her first role, though she is an avid theater fan. She told me after the show that she was shy, but neither her inexperience nor her shyness prevented her from turning in a good performance in her pivotal role as the conflicted mother of the student both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn seek to protect.

A parable is a short tale intended to teach a moral lesson or religious or guiding principle. “Doubt” can be viewed as a parable, but there are also parables with in it and all sorts of issues to ruminate on during and long after the play: the roles and treatment of women and African Americans and the ways that each wield power, the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, the mix of good and flawed qualities in each of us, and the role of uncertainty in our lives.

Costumes were designed by Cindy Parker, who recreated the authentic nun’s habits of the Sisters of Charity of New York. Shanley tells us that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded the order, actually wore the clothing of an upper class Italian widow. She had been married, and her husband died while they were traveling in Italy. A friend provided the clothing for her to wear home. She had no money for new clothes, and wore the garments the rest of her life. Her nuns followed suit. Parker also does a great job on the pastor’s clothing.

The set, designed by Andrew Arnault, is worth the price of admission alone, with its gorgeous stained glass windows, spare principal’s office, garden walkway in the chill of winter, pulpit, and more occupying the same space simultaneously, artfully arranged.

The play is performed without intermission, but there is an informal reception, with cash bar, after each show to allow the audience to discuss the play with each other and with the cast and director.

Performances continue through April 22: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 4 PM.  Tickets are $22, $19 for seniors, $17 for members, and $15 for students. On Easter Sunday, tickets are half price. Group rates are available.

For tickets, call 508-428-0669 or visit artsonthecape.org. The arts center is at 4404 Route 28 in Cotuit.

And while you are at the theater, allow time to view the abstract expressionist art work by Katherine Zens Twombly in the art gallery. Her images, bold or  wispy by turn will inspire your imagination. Upstairs, there are works by the center’s Curatorial Committee: Michelle Law, Lois Hirshberg, Mary Moquin, and Michael Ernst.

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