The search for the truth is part of human nature. Whole professions are dedicated to the task of getting to the bottom of things and satisfying our innermost -- and even our darkest -- curiosities.
But, as the priest at the center of John Patrick Shanley's riveting play, "Doubt: A Parable," says, "The truth makes for a bad sermon."
In Shanley's view, it also makes for a bad piece of drama. Which is why he staunchly avoids anything resembling definitive truth in his play, instead focusing on the ever-slippery human emotions of suspicion, deception and Shanley's supreme virtue -- the titular doubt.
In a briskly directed 90 minutes, Buffalo United Artists' engaging production of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama that opened Friday in the Alleyway Theatre focuses our attention squarely on Shanley's stark and unrelenting language. The acting in the production is as smartly unadorned as its sets, but for the most part, it's just as static.
The show, directed by Javier Bustillos, stars Lisa Ludwig as Sister Aloysius, a rigid nun and principal of a Bronx parochial school. Her character's unblinking certainty that a priest named Father Flynn (Louis Colaiacovo) is sexually exploiting a young boy serves as the fulcrum of the action. In her case against Flynn she is unwittingly supported by the doe-eyed young teacher and fellow nun Sister James (Katie White).
The show, as highly praised as any American play in recent memory, is a carefully worded treatment of trust as vice and suspicion as virtue, a world painted in black and white tones that leaves it up to the viewer to consider the infinite hues of gray in between. It is set in 1964, when, as Shanley writes, "the whole world seemed to be going through some vast puberty."
Aloysius is by far Shanley's most affecting character, as much because of her adherence to the old ways as the perceived virtue of her unyielding skepticism. Her doubt hangs like a cloud over the most innocent of gestures, like putting sugar in one's tea and searching for a warm look, to the most serious.
"Look at you," Aloysius says witheringly to Sister James, in one of the most jaw-dropping exchanges in the play. "You'd trade anything for a warm look. I'm telling you here and now, I want to see the starch in your character cultivated."
But Ludwig's performance, while certainly competent and even striking in spots, is nonetheless perforated by a certain monotone haughtiness that makes such lines seem less than believable. And despite Ludwig's best efforts to keep those impulses at bay, they betray the almost intellectual rectitude and certainty of her character.
Alternatively, Colaiacovo gives a more nuanced performance as Flynn, communicating at once confidence, compassion and subtle outrage. As James, White gives us a decent rendition of nunly naivete, and Arianna Boykins, as the mother of the boy in question, delivers a heartfelt if not entirely convincing defense of her character's rather indefensible position.
In Shanley's work, there is a certain affection, if not an explicit endorsement, for Aloysius' eternally skeptical views. This sense is bolstered in Shanley's preface to the play, in which he echoes the unyielding nun in imploring viewers to look down on their own desire to know the truth.
"There is no last word," he writes. "That's the silence under the chatter of our time."
"Doubt: A Parable"
Drama presented by Buffalo United Artists through Oct. 25 in Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley.
For more information, call 886-9239 or visit www.buffalobua.org.