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‘Doubt’ comes close to perfection

John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” is a really important play. I don’t know of another play that does all that it does with such efficiency and impact. I’ve looked for imperfections and come up empty-handed.

The 2004 play, told in one act, unfolds in a number of short scenes, discussions among four adults about the suspicion of a horrible event that may or may not have happened. Sister Aloysius, the head nun at St. Nicholas School in the Bronx, has accused Father Flynn of, at the very least, having an improper relationship with a male student. We never find out what happened, but it doesn’t matter. Our doubt has led us astray. We never stop questioning, even when we need answers.

On opening night at the Buffalo Laboratory Theatre, in a small makeshift thrust on the stage of the Hilbert College auditorium, we were reminded of the weight of this play’s parable; the anniversary of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, aligned imperfectly with Father Flynn’s opening sermon. It is 1964, and Kennedy’s assassination still hasn’t calmed. How do we rectify our comfort in a world that is far from secure?

It is a fine production, thanks mostly to Shanley’s impeccable script. Every beat lands, every turning point veers. Transforming this large theater into an intimate space does wonders. Even in its hollowness, the stage’s black curtains seem endless, lifting us up into vertical territory, white lights piercing. Are we underground? In our folding chairs, reality hits, as we are within inches of our cast, rogue spit flying from their mouths in these heated debates. We must be confronted. We must be involved.

White has created a divine space for us to ask these questions, but there are some rough spots that need addressing. Her cast works very well together. Ellen Horst is well equipped to play nuns, this we know. Horst’s stern tenor and consternating voice lend itself well to confrontation. She assumes Sister Aloysius with fervor and fear, lips quivering. Horst plants Sister’s assumptions into full-scale accusation, her wandering eyes theorizing her next move.

It is close to a knockout performance, though a number of flubbed lines on opening night were difficult to dismiss. (She wasn’t the only one – nothing that can’t be fixed overnight.) I wouldn’t have minded a little more rhythm in Horst’s delivery. Certain as she is in her convictions, Sister Aloysius has even more to discover than they ever contemplated. Horst, in her strength, begins a little too knowing, inhibiting her ability to grow.

Father Flynn is a slick character to nail down. David Hayes, in this production, is less manipulative than you’d expect, and at first comes off a little weak. But the more detailed Sister Aloysius’ assumptions become, the more his smile haunts. Hayes is a logical choice here, and while it took me a while to warm up to him, I’m glad I did. The play’s themes are troubling enough; I don’t think a more sinister performance is necessary.

Anne Roaldi Boucher completes a dramatic triangle as young Sister James, an idealistic teacher who, between her principal and her priest, doesn’t know who to fear more. Sister James is the audience’s stand-in, trying so hard to retain one’s faith in humanity’s good, while bold enough to wonder if there’s more to wonder about the world. Boucher plays Sister James aggressively, consistently and still with plenty of crescendo. The play wastes no time getting to the hard stuff, but hard as it is to stomach, it gets even harder. Boucher pulls her weight with Horst, a feat unto itself.

Annette Daniels Taylor plays Mrs. Muller, the mother of the alleged victim. It is a smaller, though unexpectedly crucial role. If played right, it stands to question the last thing you were sure you knew to be true. Her take on this situation is uncomfortable, though Taylor’s controlled rage is enough to make you want to understand.

It’s hard to know what’s up and what’s down in this tiny little play. It packs a lot into a little window of time. It feels like a dream. A nightmare. Even with its minor flaws, this production still haunts. As it should.

Theater Review

“Doubt”

3½ stars (Out of four)

A one-act play about a horrible event that might not have happened. Or maybe it did.

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