The Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Doubt provides dramatic food for thought.
By Kay Kipling
Regardless of what religious faith you pursue, it must surely be so comforting to have absolute moral certainty in the righteousness of your cause. And how unsettling to have those beliefs invaded by any doubt, however small, however nagging.
In John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning parable, Doubt, now onstage at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, that moral certainty is at the outset exemplified by Sister Aloysius (Randy Danson), the implacable principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964. In a time when much is changing—the school has its first ever black student, the winds blowing through the second Vatican Council are beginning to filter down to the Catholic Church’s every institution—Sister Aloysius is a rock who remains convinced that she knows what is best for her pupils, even as she herself must remain aloof and impersonal with them.
Her equilibrium is disturbed by the new parish priest, Father Flynn (Paul Molnar), who is reaching out in a more approachable way to his students and his congregation. Far from preaching the hidebound absolutes Sister Aloysius has grown up with, Father Flynn says rather, that “doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty” when it comes to bringing people together in troubling times.
Inevitable change is set in motion when the principal encourages a younger nun (Karis Danish) to “pay attention” to see if any of the priest’s actions with that young black student are inappropriate. As tension escalates, the boy’s mother (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) is drawn into the fray, and while her reaction is a surprise to Sister Aloysius, nothing will stop the principal from confronting the priest at last about his alleged wrongdoings.
Doubt is a taut 90-minute drama (no intermission), with a few welcome comic lines (although I found some of the audience’s laughter early on puzzling, frankly) and a well-chosen cast. Molnar and Danish were subtly effective as a likable priest and a young nun being torn in two directions, respectively, and Luqmaan-Harris more dramatically so in her pivotal scene. After a little hesitation and weakness at the start, Danson gained strength and power to embody the dictatorial Aloysius, and when she and Molnar hit head to head, it’s electric.
One relatively minor complaint: the sound design, which relies on ‘60s music (although not always music that was actually around in 1964) to switch mood and heighten drama in between scenes. I found it jarring, and not in the way it was probably meant to be.
Still, Doubt is a powerful evening in the theater, and one that leaves ample room for post-show discussion. It continues in rotating rep at the Asolo through May 1; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.