It’s 1964, and winds of change are blowing—make that howling—through the Catholic Church and through St. Nicholas parish in the Bronx. That’s where old-school principal Sister Aloysius (Lynne Buhle) and new-school priest Father Flynn (Douglas Landin) meet to fight a battle over his relationship with one young boy (who happens to be the first black student in the church’s school), in Doubt, now at Venice Theatre.
Lynne Buhle, Andrea Haney Poole and Douglas Landin in Doubt.
Even if you haven’t seen John Patrick Shanley’s Tony and Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have read very similar real-life stories over the last couple of decades, as the Catholic Church has struggled with issues of sexual and physical abuse on the part of priests. But Shanley’s play, which is subtitled “a parable,” is no righteous rant about that abuse or ensuing cover-ups. Rather, it’s a play that asks us to examine its characters’ dilemma and our own responses to it.
Sister (convincingly played by Buhle) is a non-nonsense nun, an in-charge principal whose principles may evoke some laughter, especially when she’s conveying them to a much younger and rather naïve teacher, Sister James (Andrea Haney Poole). Father Flynn is well-liked, but he’s trying to reach out to students in a way she doesn’t approve. Once she casts the first shadow of doubt upon his behavior to Sister James, there’s no going back, no putting the genie back into the bottle. Even a meeting with the student in question’s mother (Phyllis Banks), who’s just happy to have her son away from the public school where he was bullied, can’t stop the train from rushing down the tracks to a big confrontation between nun and priest.
Rushing is sort of an operative word here, because from the opening of the play the performers tend to speak too quickly, both to us (in the form of a sermon) and to each other; it’s not natural and detracts from the plausibility of their conversations. That may partly have been opening night nerves; if director Sandy Davisson manages to slow things down a bit, especially at first, we’ll more easily believe in these characters’ stances and the ultimate outcome.
But there’s no reason that can’t happen, and Buhle and Landin, especially, are well enough cast in their roles that just a little fine tuning will get them—and the production—to where it should be. Venice Theatre has added an intermission to the show, which originally ran without one, but the evening still clocks in at a trim 90 minutes—a tribute to Shanley’s ability to pack a lot of punch into a small but thought-provoking package.
Doubt continues through May 23; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.