The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama turned Oscar-nominated film returns to the stage
Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. An Oscar-nominated movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: a parable has an aura of bigness about it. Big reputation. Big themes.
And yet, as this Apocalypse Theatre Company production at the Old Fitzroy demonstrates, Doubt is at heart a chamber piece. Played for 50 people in a small theatre, with its characters close enough to touch, it is completely engrossing.
St Nicholas Church and school, The Bronx, New York, 1964. The Catholic Church is in a period of self-examination and rapid change (crisis for some) prompted by the reforms of The Second Vatican Council. Worldwide, Catholic theologians and bishops are grappling with political, economic, and technological change and – pertinent to this play – the role of women in the Church.
At first glance, Father Flynn (played here by Damian de Montemas) strikes as a Vatican II poster boy. He’s young (late thirties), progressive, approachable and eloquent when sermonising. He’s got game on the basketball court, too. The St Nicks boys like him, not least for his post-workout “bull sessions” over Kool-Aid and cookies.
He’s notably kind to one boy in particular – Donald Muller, the school’s only African-American student.
But Sister Aloysius (Belinda Giblin), a stern senior nun of the old-school variety (she frets over the moral implications of students being allowed to write with ballpoint pens), smells a rat. Or worse.
Though she has no direct evidence, her spidey-sense is tingling. She knows Flynn’s type. She’s seen it before.
Yet what can she do? Though Sister Aloysius is respected, she has no agency in a male-dominated Church. To raise questions about Flynn’s motives to his superiors would at best lead to a cover-up and a hasty transfer to another dioceses. If she is to get rid of him, she must engineer his exit herself.
And the suspect? Shanley keeps his audience guessing, doubting every word spoken about him.
Is Flynn delivering pastoral care to an isolated student with a troubled home life or is he grooming him? Is Flynn is the victim here, the target of a vindictive campaign by a zealot who sees his willingness to reach out as an erosion of Church authority?
For 90 tension-filled minutes punctuated by flashes of humour, Shanley expertly strings his audience along in a cat-and-mouse game.
Played on a stern grey set by Jonathan Hindmarsh that allows for swift transitions between bleak interiors and a wintery garden, director Dino Dimitriades’ production is a carefully governed, emotionally restrained reading that dials up tension almost imperceptibly. It is flawlessly cast.
Though the focus is on Flynn, Doubt is very much Sister Aloysius’ show and Giblin delivers brilliantly with a portrait of a woman whose outward severity (accentuated by the Salem-style garb worn by the Sisters of Mercy in those days) belies a passion for justice and a worldly sharpness in her humour. Only at the end, in Giblin’s reveal of Aloysius’ feelings, do we see the toll this interior schism exacts.
De Montemas is an excellent choice for Flynn though he could be more liquid, or seductive, in his manner at times; in the opening sermon, particularly.
Matilda Ridgway is transparently confused as Sister James, the enthusiastic young teacher whom Aloysius alternately monsters and mentors. In her Old Fitz debut, Charmaine Bingwa is completely convincing as Donald’s mother in a scene that muddies the waters of the situation considerably.
I’ve seen Doubt twice now, the first time when Sydney Theatre Company produced it at the Opera House in 2006. It struck me then as a play that could stand a coda, one more sermon from Flynn. It still does. Shanley is nothing if not neat with his ending. But there’s no doubt that the final moments of this taut and topical thriller pack a punch, and this production judges its weight pretty much perfectly.