John Patrick Shanley’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt is one of those rare plays where the mystery is not supposed to be solved. That’s why people who see different productions compare notes and think they have seen different dramas entirely.
Shanley himself is divided. As a kid he was expelled from different authoritarian parochial schools. But as a middle-aged man, after widespread priestly abuse scandals, he became more sympathetic to self-sacrificing women – the nuns – in a patriarchal power structure. All of Shanley’s biographical angst is throbbing in director Dan Stevens’ fast-moving staging of Doubt, produced by Salt City Center for the Performing Arts but appearing at the Central New York Playhouse in Shoppingtown.
The excellence of Shanley’s dialogue is not just its wit (he also scripted the movie Moonstruck) but its luxuriant subtext. Actors’ work just begins with reading the lines; they must also convey the unspoken.
Sister Aloysius (Nora O’Dea), the crusty old battleaxe school principal in the Bronx, might really think the impudent young priest, Father Flynn (Michael Richard King), has been interfering with a troubled boy, the only black pupil in an all-white school. While her words may condemn superficialities, like his putting three lumps of sugar in his coffee, what she really hates is his ingratiating desire to be liked. It undermines authority, which is to be feared.
Director Stevens’ choices shift weight to either side of scale. Under his hand, Nora O’Dea (Mrs. Stevens) might be frosty, but she doesn’t scare the bejesus out of us, strengthening her dramatic indictment. Michael Richard King’s Flynn, on the other hand, comes across as an equitable good guy, even if he fabricates vignettes in his preaching: “The truth makes for a bad sermon.” (Ouch!) Maybe he is indeed an innocent victim of reaction against post-Vatican II liberality.
Supporting roles are first class. Lynn King makes Sister James tougher and smarter than she has been in other productions. As Mrs. Muller, mother of the young boy, Kimberly Rowe sends out sparks the moment she enters the stage. The Canadian-born Rowe makes the most smashing debut in community theater all year.
Production values add and subtract. Mike Daugherty’s sound gives us authentic wind storms, bird calls and ecclesiastical music. Barbara Toman’s costumes, including a black visored cap so the women don’t have to cut their hair, look threatening. But when the light comes straight down we can’t see Sister Aloysius’ steely eyes.
Salt City Center for the Performing Arts presents: Doubt running Nov. 13, 14, 15 at 8:00 p.m. at Central New York Playhouse, Shoppingtown Mall.