It may be daunting for companies to produce the original theatrical source for a well-regarded movie, but Lantern Theater Company’s DOUBT—like Luna Theater’s current production of Closer—shows why some plays are worth reclaiming for the stage.
DOUBT is remarkably tightly crafted: plot and character, setting and themes wrapped together inextricably. “What do you do when you’re not sure? that’s the subject of today’s sermon,” preaches Father Brendan Flynn (Ben Dibble) of St. Nicholas Church School. It’s 1964, the nation feels the “common feeling of hopelessness” in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination. But members of the congregation of DOUBT are experiencing their own private uncertainties.
The school is run by stern Sister Aloysius (Mary Martello), who instructs younger, naive nun Sister James (Clare Mahoney) to be “alert” about “matters at St. Nicholas” Sister James wants desperately to see the best in her students and fellow man, but she witnesses the school’s first black student become disturbed by one-on-one contact with Father Flynn. With scant evidence, Sister Aloysius is convinced that something untoward has happened. “Here there’s no man I can trust,” she tells the younger nun. “And men rule everything…. We’ll have to stop it ourselves.”
Throughout, playwright John Patrick Shanley weaves issues key to the time period—gender politics, race relations, social permissiveness—into the fabric of this plot with only the slightest weight of hand. Likewise, his dialog is rich in easy symbolism: “Every easy choice today will have its consequences tomorrow”, “The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion.”
With Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the 2008 movie set a high standard for actors, but the Lantern’s production forges its own path. The film was fairly faithful, but depicts much action only referenced in Shanley’s script, and the plot is tauter without this, the doubt more pronounced.
Although he misses some opportunities to charm the audience with his sermons, Dibble skillfully communicates the uncertainties and confusion of Sister Aloysius’s campaign against his Father Flynn. Director Kathryn MacMillan guides a steadily building tension, and Dibble keeps us guessing without tipping his hand. Lance Kniskern’s set traces this same fuzzy line, fading the gray-stone exterior into the jigsaw red bricks of an interior office.
With a steely firmness and insuppressible conviction, Martello gives a Sherman tank of a performance. “You have not the slightest proof of anything,” protests Father Flynn at her accusations.
“But I have my certainty,” the sister replies. There’s a parable here. [St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th & Ludlow streets] January 15-February 15, 2015; lanterntheater.org.
- Read Phindie writer Kathryn Osenlund’s take on Broad Street Review
- And Jim Rutter’ review for the Inquirer