If you were an ordinary Catholic boy in parochial school, giving nuns as hard a time as you were getting, you probably ended up with the usual stories of ruler-rapped knuckles. If you grew up to be talented playwright John Patrick Shanley, you ended up writing Doubt: A Parable, a fascinating exploration of the quicksand of certainty, which Center Stage Productions is mounting in an absorbing rendition at the Courthouse Center for the Arts (through September 20).
If you know the story only through the thought-provoking film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, you don't want to miss Shanley's original conceptualization. As directed by Bryna Wortman, it ebbs and flows with tensions and, as performed here by first-rate actors, it comes alive in ways that camera close-ups can't accomplish.
As principal of St. Nicholas School, stern Sr. Aloysius (Irene Handren) rules over the junior high school students, as imperious as a monarch. She views the compassion shown by Sr. James (Tonia Klemp) and even her joy at teaching history as weaknesses that work against the students being scared studious. But the play involves an even more serious concern of hers. She has come to believe that a priest, Fr. Flynn (Michael Healy), is a child molester, or has such evil designs. She doesn't put it that bluntly. "Inappropriate relationship" is about as explicit as she will get.
The story takes place in 1964, when the playwright was 14, but the time setting does more than allow Shanley a milieu familiar to him. This was long before the public caught wind of the widespread abuse by priests, so Sr. Aloysius's attentiveness makes her, potentially, an astute observer rather than just a busybody. Such a concern expressed today would trigger an entirely different cascade of consequences, and the Sister's suspicion would seem far less ambiguous.
Ambiguity of intentions is the story here, much more than the actual events are. The source of the nun's worry is the priest's interest in one boy in particular; his interest is given several explanations, both benign and sinister, for us to consider. Shanley is best known for the movie Moonstruck, in which the motivations on both sides of a romantic relationship remain perfectly unambiguous. But here we are tugged into the story ourselves as we, like them, have to come to terms with uncertainty in general as well as regarding the characters.
But as an airy epistemological meditation, Doubt gets fascinatingly tangible. When Fr. Flynn gives a sermon about the harmful effects of gossip, he tells a tale of a neighborhood scandalmonger instructed to rip open a pillow on her roof and then try to retrieve every feather. Shanley is similarly concerned with keeping things vivid. A shy 12-year-old African-American boy named Donald Muller is the focus, but we see him only in our imaginations. His mother, however, is brought onto the stage. Mrs. Muller (Tammy Brown) is called to school by Sr. Aloysius, and her reaction to the nun's suspicions, slowly extracted, is surprising as well as surprisingly plausible.