Shadows of Doubt

Shadows of Doubt

The well-being of a Catholic schoolboy is in question. The actions of a priest are under scrutiny. The certainty of an accusing nun is unsettling.

With no clear answers offered by the time the actors playing these characters take their bows, you could come away thinking that John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play Doubt, A Parable, now being staged by the New Haven Theater Company, intends for the audience to play judge and jury.

But we doubt it. In the script’s foreword, Shanley laments the certainty-valuing “courtroom culture… of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict” he sees dominating major arenas of American discourse, arresting our psychological and intellectual improvement. Doubt, on the other hand, is the engine of real progress, he thinks. “When a man feels unsteady, when he falters, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he’s on the verge of growth.”

He applies this no less evenly to the rest of us. “You may come out of my play uncertain,” Shanley writes. “You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word.”

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The trouble, of course, is that “There is no last word” is a last word unto itself. The notion that there are hard knowable truths is a tough one for some to swallow, but even in Shanley’s play, there they are. Sister Aloysius, the suspicious nun, and Father Flynn, the suspected priest, say this and do that, and they don’t say this and don’t do that. Some of these truths we know and some we don’t, defined by what we’re shown and what we aren’t. But not knowing what’s true doesn’t undermine the idea that there’s a truth to know.

There are good reasons to doubt Shanley’s philosophical take on doubt. But his dramatic take on it—anchored as it is in a plausible real-world scenario, awash in the shadowiness that naturally attends it—is quite genius. No sentence of monologue or dialogue feels wasted. Each one develops character, advances plot or deepens subtext. And as one shadow of doubt dissipates, another materializes to enshroud things.

The central question driving the action is whether Father Flynn, played for the NHTC by Steve Scarpa, is guilty of engaging in an inappropriate sexual relationship with 12-year-old Donald Muller—the first black student the St. Nicholas Church School has ever admitted, and a natural subject of special interest for the outwardly empathetic, progressive-minded Flynn. Meanwhile, actress Margaret Mann’s Sister Aloysius is stern, pious and unbending, the principal all the students fear, devoted to old, conservative ways on the eve of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. She seems destined to be troubled, for one reason or another, by the relatively freewheeling Flynn, who writes with a newfangled ball point pen, not her preferred fountain variety; has overly long fingernails; and takes three indulgent sugar cubes in his tea.

When that destiny crystalizes into a very specific suspicion, soon to become a hard belief, that Flynn has abused the boy, Aloysius stokes misgiving within her naive and eager-to-please subordinate Sister James, the sweet, innocent schoolteacher played by Mallory Pellegrino. She also invites Donald’s mother, Mrs. Fuller, a loving but world-weary pragmatist played by Aleta Staton, to stand with her in her accusations. “I will bring him down,” she states at one point, despite having no real evidence of his guilt.

Early on in the rehearsal process, director George Kulp met with his Flynn, Mr. Scarpa, to discuss “how to approach his part and what it was about,” which brings up another intriguing aspect of Shanley’s tack: that the directors, actors and crew who stage his play are also left to interpret what their characters have or haven’t done.

Admirably, Kulp and Scarpa declined to discuss their specific approach, preserving the hope Shanley expressed in his foreword.

 When you see Doubt, you’ll have to peer into all the shadows that’ve been cast, and confront whether intractable doubt is something you—and also, the richly drawn characters in the play—can, as Shanley put it, “learn to live with.”

Doubt, A Parable
presented by the New Haven Theater Company
inside the English Building Markets
839 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Thurs-Sat March 12-14 at 8pm

Written by Bonnie Goldberg and Dan Mims. Photograph courtesy of the New Haven Theater Company.

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