Doubt, A Parable
Reviewed – 8th September 2017
“Stella Gonet is magnificent as Sister Aloysius, her mounting obsession and rage are compelling”
It’s easy to see why John Patrick Shanley’s play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Play in 2005. The writing is assured and Shanley builds the tension arising from the moral ambiguities of the story with consummate skill. Gripping and thought provoking, this powerful play makes the audience question preconceptions and judgements, keeping us all in doubt.
The setting is a church school in the Bronx in 1964. The school is run by a stern, conservative nun, Sister Aloysius. The first line in the play, ‘what do you do when you’re not sure?’, is spoken by Father Flynn, the popular and progressive parish priest. Sister Aloysius disapproves of Father Flynn and when Sister James, a young nun, tells her that he met with Donald Muller, the school’s only African-American student alone, her suspicions are aroused. On extremely tenuous evidence she becomes convinced that Flynn has abused the boy and determines to confront him.
Having delivered his first sermon on the subject of doubt, Flynn delivers his second on the evils of gossip, using a parable to illustrate his point. Sister James is troubled, already undermined by Sister Aloysius she want to believe Father Flynn, but is mired in doubt and uncertainty. When Donald’s mother is called in to meet with Sister Aloysius she reacts angrily to her suspicions of Father Flynn and is determined that her son must stay at the school, it’s a big thing for him to be the first and only black student there, and he has the chance of getting into a good high school if he stays. She is pragmatic, ‘that’s the way it is.’
Che Walker’s direction deliberately leaves the audience unsure. He said ‘I want them to be completely unsure. I would have failed if they walked out with any certainty about anything.’
As audience members we are confronted by our preconceptions. Who should we believe? With two of the greatest scandals befalling the Catholic church in the 20th and 21st centuries being child abuse by priests and the damage done to countless children who were educated by nuns in rigidly conservative and punitive religious schools, we are confronted by uncertainty. Like sister James we are caught in the middle.
The cast is strong. Stella Gonet is magnificent as Sister Aloysius, her mounting obsession and rage are compelling. It is not easy to sympathize with her character, but is she right? Father Flynn, played with charm and warmth by Jonathan Chambers is much easier to like, but does this make him easier to believe? Flynn keeps us guessing, although he is quick to anger and is thrown off balance by Sister Aloysius’ actions. Chambers makes us want him to be good. Sister James is sweet and wants to teach her class with love and kindness. Clare Latham is touching in the role, dealing with the dilemma of trying to conform to Sister Aloysius’ idea of what a teacher should be and with her distress over the possibility of Father Flynn’s guilt. She does come to a decision about his actions, and we feel her gentle certainty. Jo Martin is not on stage for long as Mrs Muller, but she makes a real impact. Her portrayal of a strong, concerned mother, who worries for her son and becomes furious with Sister Aloysius gave us a real, rounded character in a short time. When she went off stage the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
As we left the theatre after the standing ovation, the air was buzzing with speculation … Did he do it, or didn’t he … ?
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Paul Nicholas Dyke
DOUBT, A PARABLE
is at the Southwark Playhouse until 30th September