No one can tell a sinner just by looking at his face. At least, not most people and not most faces. Sin has a way of making itself look attractive, appealing, sexy; and some sinners know how to wear that appeal as a mask, hiding their true nature.
That allure is what make sinners such excellent literary characters, full of unknown motives, personal convictions and nondescript torment. John Patrick Shanley takes that person and puts him into the heart of the Catholic Church in Doubt, a play that questions what we think we see.
The Fusion Theatre Company's regional premiere of Doubt at The Cell begins with a dark stage and a soft folksy-rock song, allowing the audience members to clear their minds. As the song ends, the lights come up and the friendly, attractive face of Father Flynn (Ross Kelly) smiles warmly at his congregation from behind the pulpit. Father Flynn delivers a moving sermon about loneliness and doubt, setting the tone and theme that continues throughout the story.
Sitting under the bold wooden cross above her desk, Sister Aloysius (Laurie Thomas), principal of St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, is visited by one of her eighth grade teachers, Sister James (Rachel Tatum). Sister Aloysius uses this unexpected visit to question Sister James about the goings on in her class, particularly if Sister James had noticed any strange behavior relating to Father Flynn. The young and inexperienced Sister James is flustered and put off by Sister Aloysius' old-fashioned views of discipline and order, and even more put off by Aloysius' absolute conviction that Father Flynn is hiding a dirty secret. Sister James eventually recalls smelling alcohol on the breath of Donald Muller, the school's first and only black student, after a meeting with Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius seizes this evidence and begins her journey to uncover the truth—for the sake of the children, no matter the cost—including questioning Donald's mother (Angela Littleton) and the man of the cloth himself.
Doubt is a masterfully written play and has garnered the accolades to prove it, including four Tony awards, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play of the Season and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, just to name a few. Shanley has created four incredibly different and rich characters. As new evidence is found or an explanation given in Doubt, it's impossible to place faith and support onto any one character long, for as surely as the next scene begins another character appeals to that trust (making the play's title work on many incredible levels). Because the characters are so strong, it takes strong actors to portray them, and, by god, the Fusion Theatre Company found some.
As the first actor on stage, Ross Kelly immediately sells the audience on his charm and charisma. Kelly delivers the kind of sermon that would draw crowds to any church at 8 a.m. Sunday morning. He's gripping, delightful and believable to a sickening level, especially as his character comes under more and more suspicion for wrongdoing.
Opposing Father Flynn's immediate likability is Sister Aloysius' immediate dislikability. Laurie Thomas’ presentation of the strict schoolmarm your mother always told you about when you were being particularly naughty is spot on without being melodramatic. Sister Aloysius' unwavering faith would take beating after beating, yet Thomas keep her conviction fresh while hinting at a deep suffering just under the surface.
Rachel Tatum's innocent Sister James seemed ready to burst from embarrassment, uncertainty, passion and unwavering goodness at any moment. Where Thomas hid Sister Aloysius' warmth under her black tunic, Tatum wears it gleaming on her face. Sister James deals with doubt of her own, and Tatum doesn't shy away from the consequences of that doubt.
While Angela Littleton’s Mrs. Muller is only on stage for one scene, it's heated and tense. Littleton's reserve and poise while under pressure from Sister Aloysius makes the moments when the facade of niceties slink away chilling, wrenching and desperate. For a moment, Sister Aloysius seemed small, and that's an accomplishment.
While anyone involved in theater will say no performance is ever perfect, it's hard to find a flaw in Doubt. The performances were fantastic, the costuming and set design dynamic, the directorial choices complemented a masterful script and there wasn't an empty seat in the house. Call ahead and reserve your seats—unlike church, there's not always room for everyone.