A parable for our times

by Keith Barber

A parable for our times


John Patrick Shanley, the playwright who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt: A Parable, once said: “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite. It is a passionate exercise.”

Everything about Wake Forest University Theatre’s production of Doubt served to expound upon Shanley’s premise that living with “a full measure of uncertainty” is the price of seeking the truth.

Rob Eastman-Mullins’ scenery helped recreate the Spartan nature of St. Nicholas, a Catholic Church and school in the Bronx, NY in 1964. But it was the outstanding performances of actors Michael Whatley, Abby Suggs, Jenny Malarkey and Aleshia Price elevated the production to unexpected heights during the Sept. 30 performance that made it easy for the audience to forget they were watching a university theater company.

The post-performance discussion of Doubt, however, reminded audience members that Shanley’s play is an intellectual exercise. The discussion was led by Wanda Balzano, program director for women’s and gender studies; Mary DeShazer, professor of English and women’s and gender studies; and Sister Larretta Rivera Williams, the school’s assistant chaplain.

But the play is the thing, and director Brook Davis, along with vocal coach Leah Elyse Roy, got the best out of their young actors. Whatley, a junior from Asheville, played Father Brendan Flynn with a confidence rarely seen in a young thespian. Whatley inhabited the character of a man with something to hide by exhibiting a quiet intensity throughout the one-act play. Abby

Suggs’ portrayal of Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the school principal, and Jenny Malarkey’s portrayal of Sister James, who first suspects Father Flynn of wrongdoing, give gravity to the moral message of Shanley’s script.

Act I begins with Sister Aloysius laying down the rules of St. Nicholas for Sister James, expressing her disdain for ballpoint pens and advising her not to get emotionally involved with her students. Sister James, an idealistic, inexperienced eighth-grade teacher, had come to the principal’s office to inquire about the status of William London — a student who had been sent home with a nosebleed. Sister Aloysius points out she observed William fidgeting with a ballpoint pen as he waited for his mother to pick him up. She points out that the school allows only fountain pens.

Sister Aloysius tells Sister James that “innocent teachers are easily duped.” Sister Aloysius goes on to say, “If you are looking for reassurance, you can be fooled; if you study others, you will not be fooled.”

When Sister James tells her superior that Father Flynn has taken a special interest in the school’s first African American student, Donald Muller, Sister Aloysius begins to suspect the priest of behaving inappropriately. Sister James reveals Father Flynn spent time alone with Donald Muller in the rectory, and the boy returned to class with alcohol on his breath, leading Sister Aloysius to jump to a conclusion and set the plays central conflict in motion.

In Act II, Sister Aloysius meets with Mrs. Muller, who tells the principal that her son “is that way,” and that she is thankful that Father Flynn has taken an interest. Mrs. Muller tells Sister Aloysius that Donald’s father beats him because he is gay, and she can accept the situation with Father Flynn because it’s “only until June,” when Donald goes on to high school.

Undeterred, Sister Aloysius confronts Father Flynn in the company of Sister James in a meeting supposedly about the upcoming Christmas pageant. Father Flynn denies any wrongdoing and takes notes of Sister Aloysius’ accusations. This meeting sets the stage for the final confrontation when Sister Aloysius tells Father Flynn she spoke with a nun at his previous parish. It is revealed St. Nicholas is Flynn’s third parish in the past five years. Father Flynn says there is an innocent explanation, but Sister Aloysius doesn’t believe him, stating, “You will go after one child after another until you are stopped.”

Sister Aloysius says she won’t stop until she finds a parent who will expose the priest. Flynn pleads with her but to no avail. After she leaves her office, Father Flynn phones the bishop. In the final scene between Sister Aloysius and Sister James, it is revealed that Father Flynn has been transferred to a different parish and given a promotion. Sister Aloysius said she spoke with the monsignor about Father Flynn’s behavior but the monsignor would not believe her. She also admits she lied about speaking to the nun in Flynn’s previous parish, and now she finds herself confronted with grave doubts.

“Doubt keeps you in the present, it keeps you conscious and reacting to and acting on what is going on now,” Shanley once said.

Wake Forest Theatre’s excellent interpretation of his work brings to light its timeless message, and reveals how top-notch theatrical productions serve the same function — to keep the audience engaged in a dialogue by asking questions with no clear answers.