The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, May 2, 2008, Arts


Zach Theatre Whisenhunt Stage,
through June 8

Running time: 1 hr, 20 min

"Innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil," proclaims Sister Aloysius, principal of St. Nicholas. No one doubts whether evil exists or not. In Doubt, Zach Theatre's latest production, what's in question is who's masking their evil intents and who's acting in the name of good.

John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama is set in a Catholic church in the Bronx circa 1964 and focuses on the close relationship between a priest and an adolescent boy. Sister Aloysius runs the church's school and is your old-fashioned schoolmarm, a nay-saying nun who thinks satisfaction is a vice, pulls no punches, and knows exactly how the world turns. She bluntly dresses down her new teacher, Sister James. She never smiles. She's the woman you'd expect to slam a ruler on your knuckles.

The counter to her icy persona is Father Flynn, a progressive priest. He teaches basketball to the boys, preaches on the power of doubt, and altogether chafes the righteous chaps of Sister Aloysius. When the principal learns that Father Flynn has taken Donald Muller, the first black student at St. Nicholas, under his wing, she immediately jumps to the worst conclusions. Sister Aloysius unwaveringly claims certainty in her speculation, though her proof seems to be in her personal disdain for his peculiar habits: his use of ballpoint pens, the three lumps of sugar he takes in his tea, his affinity for secular songs like "Frosty the Snowman."

It's something we don't want to be true. Pederasty, abuse, defilement, corruption – it's much easier to believe these things don't happen, that the world is innocent and good, that warm-hearted men like Father Flynn would never do such unspeakable things. In fact, no character in Doubt is willing to use precise language to describe the incident. The most provocative phrase used is "inappropriate relationship." We don't want to give such terrible possibilities legitimacy.

And yet.

Why is there a yet? Why does doubt linger? Part of it is our history, our knowledge of the sad, disturbing troubles that have plagued the Catholic Church. Part of it is our conservative desire to protect ourselves from that which we haven't experienced, the unknown, the potentially harmful. And part of it may be, sadly, that we've come to expect the worse in these situations.

And yet, as much as we want to write off Sister Aloysius and her holy high horse, we cannot. As much as we want the world to be clearly partitioned into good and evil – "that the world sometimes is black and white," as the nun puts it – deciding which side is the right one is far from an easy matter. Neither Father Flynn nor Sister Aloysius can live up to either ideal. Caught between the two power figures and schools of thought, young Sister James cannot sleep. The middle ground is torturous. The middle ground is doubt.

Doubt walks this line without exploiting the plot with scenes of melodrama or sensationalism, easy pitfalls with such subject matter. Without intermission, director Steven Dietz's production constantly escalates in tension as gripping scene follows gripping scene. The action neatly shifts around the in-the-round Whisehunt Stage, cleverly designed to house garden, office, and pulpit all at once.

Perhaps the scariest evil is the one that marches resolutely on in the name of good. So much is done in good's name, yet no one can hold claim to it. Who is good? Who is evil? "When you are lost, you are not alone," preaches Father Flynn. He's speaking of doubt. Losing the faith. In Shanley's compelling drama, though, the consequences of losing the right to be good are far greater. And losing that, well, nothing cures.

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