To say that John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is an essay in action is misleading, since we're more aware of watching the human dilemmas unfold than we are of learning from the play. As the current production (through July 16) at Roger Williams University's Barn Summer Playhouse reminds us, we're fascinated not so much by the conclusions that characters come to than by the turmoil they put themselves through.
The basic story is simple, a sort of triangular firing squad. At a Bronx parochial school, the principal, the elderly Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Sharon Coleman), suspects one of the teachers, a priest, of being a pederast. Young Sister James (Alex Maynard) brings her inconclusive information that bolsters the notion of her superior while she remains dubious. The good-natured, well-liked priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Jeff DeSisto), denies the charge, which is never formally presented, and is understandably, self-righteously, furious over the eventual accusation.
It is 1964, a time of social ferment and change, when "the whole world seemed to be going through some kind of vast puberty," as Shanley put it. More significantly, the Roman Catholic Church's harboring, forgiving, and quietly reassigning countless pedophiles had not yet come to light.
The first words of the play are from Father Flynn, delivering a sermon. "What do you do when you're not sure?" he asks his parishioners, going on to celebrate the fellow feeling that accompanies this universal, existential state. "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining a certainty," he concludes. "When you are lost, you are not alone."
How smart and satisfying that the playwright unifies the three characters, despite the extreme contrast of their perspectives, with this common plight.
The purported victim of Father Flynn is a 12-year-old boy, Donald Miller. He is new to the school, its first African-American, and since he has made no friends, Father Flynn takes him under his wing as his protector. We never see the boy, but Sister Aloysius calls his mother in to see if she has suspicions about the priest. Mrs. Miller (Carolyn Tidwell) reacts unexpectedly, to say the least, to the sister's suspicion. Not only is she not worried for her boy, she doesn't care if the allegation is true, just so he can stay at the school and remain on track for a good high school and then college. Implausible? Perhaps, but not more so than some people react offstage.
Sister Aloysius is characterized right away as suspicious by nature and conservative to the point of complaining that Frosty the Snowman is a pagan artifact promoting witchcraft. She criticizes Sister James for being overly enthusiastic in her classes when she should be calm and sober. "Liars should be frightened to lie to you," she instructs the young nun. Coleman is excellent as the strict Sister Aloysius, making her more of an unyielding disciplinarian than a martinet. As with religious faith itself, she tightly clutches her certainty over Father Flynn's guilt, despite not really knowing.
The contrasting Sister James is an admitted innocent, naïve, and what Maynard contributes to the character is a thoughtfulness as she has to make up her own mind about Father Flynn. There is some guilt thrown into her psychological mix as well, since she precipitated the furor, telling Sister Aloysius that she smelled alcohol on the boy's breath after he was meeting privately with the priest, an incident that eventually was smoothly explained away.