Dignity Players has a fine reputation for staging plays of social significance, and Doubt is no exception — except in its quality. It’s so much more than good that it’s pretty near perfect. John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play is riveting enough already for its honest and clever treatment of the clergy pedophilia scandal, but with performances rivaling those of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars — Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams starred in the film adaptation — this show is a must-see.
The story is both a mystery and a crusade, pitting a suspicious nun against a charismatic priest. For the 5.5 million Americans who attended parochial schools yearly during the 1960s, it’s also an anxious walk down memory lane to the principal’s office, a world that Shanley knew well. In this place of reckoning, no visitor feels comfortable. Here the likes of Sister Aloysius (Mary MacLeod) bends minds young and old to her purpose under the watchful eyes of Jesus, Mary and Pope Paul VI.
One of St. Nicholas School’s new teachers, the “excessively innocent” Sister James (Tori Kontor) enters a Catch-22 when her superior warns her to look out for inappropriate conduct between Father Flynn (Jim Gallagher) and children. Incredulous and reluctant, she obeys, only to be tormented by guilt for the tortuous inquiry occasioned by her report.
“The most innocent can appear sinister to the poisoned mind,” the accused tells her. But the threat of abuse is as real as the holes in Jesus’ hands.
Does one glancing touch rebuffed justify concern? When should watchfulness cross the line to allegation in the absence of evidence?
In a power struggle in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy that men are rigged to win, Sister Aloysius is a fierce moral guardian, relentless as a bulldog and conniving as a fox. But her intolerance of everything from secular music to ball point pens renders her motivations suspect, for Father Flynn embraces all manner of indulgences that she rejects.
At the root of it all is the unseen eighth grader Donald Muller, the school’s first black student and a recent transfer. Shunned by his classmates and one shove away from a beating, he finds a protector in Father Flynn. His desperate mother (Kelly Armstrong) is so grateful she ignores the principal’s warning. A black woman in 1964 understands survival in a way Sister Aloysius can’t, so weighing her son’s inclinations against her husband’s certain violence should scandal erupt, she is complicit in his abuse.
As the layers of each character’s circumstances are peeled back, we gain insight into each and into how their perceptions might be clouded. Sister Aloysius’s young widowhood, Father Flynn’s obscure past and Sister James’ distress over family troubles are all relevant. Each has doubts, yet all live by faith.
In a cast of remarkable talent, every performer stands out. Even better than Streep in the film, MacLeod embodies the omnipotent nuns I remember with fear and trembling. Her humanity lurks just under her wimple. Gallagher, like Hoffman in the film, is so commanding and endearing a sermonist that he seems to have missed his calling. Muller breaks hearts with careful composure that veils her inner torment, and Kontor delivers on her character’s reputation as “a woman who would trade anything for a warm look.”
As with many Dignity productions, there is no technical nuance, but none is needed. The set is just spare and fine enough to have been lifted from a time capsule. The costumes are so realistic that the actors appear to be wearing habits and vestments, which is forbidden under Catholic law. Only a surplus of hair framing the nuns’ faces robs the illusion of realism.
In a long line of winners, this is without a doubt Dignity’s finest production. It would be a sin to miss it.
Director: Kathleen Clarke Ruttum. Production manager: Vicki Barstow. Costumer: Krista Davies. Stage manager: Andy McLendon.
Playing thru Aug. 13 at 7:30pm ThSu; 8pm FSa at Dignity Players Theatre, Unitarian Universalist Church, 333 Dubois Rd., Annapolis. $20 FSa; $15 ThSu: rsvp; 410-266-8044 x127; www.dignityplayers.org.