'Doubt: A Parable'

On the surface, "Doubt: A Parable" by John Patrick Shanley is a detective story. The cat-and-mouse game of a rigid, authoritarian nun determined to catch a priest she believes is a pedophile.

"Doubt," currently playing at Camelot Theatre in Talent, however, is much more than that. Shanley's tightly written play won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 2005. It is about absolute conviction versus reason. It is also about the ease of telling a parable over the difficulty of presenting truth.

The play is set in a parochial school in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1964. The school's principal, Sister Aloysius (Livia Genise), values tradition and authority over empathy. The parish priest, Father Flynn (Doug Warner), on the other hand, welcomes the reforms suggested by Vatican II. He chooses to make the church more accessible to his flock. His style is to lead by persuasion and example.

So, then, are Sister Aloysius' suspicions of his motives based on reality or on her overwhelming dislike of the man?

At times, Sister Aloysius's rigidity is laughable. For example, she decries the students' use of ballpoint pens in place of "real" pens — fountain pens. Ballpoint pens, she insists, force the children bear down as they write and ruin penmanship ("makes them write like monkeys"). She even resists the inclusion of "Frosty, the Snowman" in the Christmas pageant because it represents pagan magic.

But, she is also a keen and always suspicious observer. (As she points out to the naive, idealistic — and very empathetic — Sister James [Rose Passione], the eighth-grade boy in the class with an unstoppable nosebleed may have stuck one of those reprehensible ballpoint pens up his nose as a way of getting out of school.) And every fiber of Sister Aloysius is convinced that there is something "wrong" with the interest Father Flynn is taking in Donald Muller, the only African American boy in the school.

As played by Camelot's Artistic Director Livia Genise, Sister Aloysius is the picture of certainty. Certainty about the church, about teaching, about life itself. There are no chinks in her armor — she has spent her life making sure there are none — and firmly girded, she fears no battle.

For most of the first act, the audience stands strongly behind the charming Father Flynn. As Shanley wrote the part, Father Flynn is much younger, more disingenuous than the priest here played by Doug Warner. But Warner captures the warmth, the reasonableness, the compassion of the man. Warner's delivery of his two sermons — the first, on "doubt," opens the play; the second, on "gossip," opens the second act — are so compelling that we identify with their intensely personal nature. We desperately want Sister Aloysius' suspicions to be unfounded, for Father Flynn to be a much-maligned hero.

But, as the determined Sister Aloysius repeatedly confronts Father Flynn, his story begins to seem less straight-forward, less innocent.

In a powerful scene, Sister Aloysius grills the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (Jade Chavis Watt). What the nun — and the audience — discovers makes the situation even more ambiguous. There are more than two sides to this story. Or, as Mrs. Muller points out, as the nun can't touch the priest, it will be the boy who is blamed and suffer the consequences.

First-time director Don Matthews, known for his work as classical music director with Jefferson Public Radio and his appearances as an actor in many musical and non-musical Rogue Valley productions, has done a virtuoso job of keeping this intricate production taut and balanced. One wishes that Father Flynn's moment of vulnerability was not so rushed, that Warner had more time to squirm (Is he talking about guilty thoughts or guilty deeds?) but that is possibly the only weak point of the play. Genise and Warner are pros and Matthews worked closely with them to fashion two powerful, even-handed performances. He also did a superlative job delineating Sister James and Mrs. Muller.

I am consistently amazed at scenic designer Don Zastoupil's ability to offer an evocative set on Camelot's postage-stamp-sized stage. Here, he has effortlessly created a church, the principal's office and a garden with some lovely props and not much else.

Costume designer Barbara Rains has accurately recreated the stiff, black, "modern-for-its-day" habit of the Sisters of Charity, with its bonnet and cape, and the austere cassocks and beretta of Father Flynn. The program credits Ashland's Trinity Episcopal Church and the Rev. Anne Bartlett for the loan of Father Flynn's priestly vestments. Lighting design is by Bart Grady and sound design is b Brian O'Connor.

At the end of "Doubt," has Sister Aloysius won? Or did gossip? As playwright Shanley's Father Flynn points out, "The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion." This play presents evidence on both sides, leaving enough doubt to make for a provocative conclusion.

"Doubt" plays at Camelot Theatre through Nov. 8. For more information, call 535-5250.

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