Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, famously said of a fellow politician, “I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.” It was an insult, of course: being cocksure – certain – of anything is hard enough. But to be certain of everything? Hah!
Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas’s Catholic school in the Bronx, is certain of everything: teaching art, music, and dance in elementary school is a waste of time; teachers should maintain distance between themselves and their students, and not become too friendly; fear is a greater motivator than love; and something isn’t right between Father Flynn and the new boy in school.
The boy – whom we do not meet – is the first, and so far only, black child to attend the school. Sister James, a young, eager, naïve teacher, is happy that Father Flynn – a dynamic priest who coaches basketball and is popular with the students – has taken the boy under his wing and given him special attention. It’s 1964, school integration is still new and not terribly popular, and the boy needs an advocate: Father Flynn seems to fill the bill.
But Sister Aloysius sows doubt in Sister James’s mind: is Father Flynn really the boy’s champion, or is there something untoward about their relationship? Why is the boy called from school to the rectory one day – and appears upset when he returns to class? And what does it mean that Sister James smelled alcohol on the boy’s breath after his visit to the rectory?
In her office, with Sister James present as a reluctant witness, Sister Aloysius fences with Father Flynn, who responds to her suspicions and accusations angrily, but provides a seemingly reasonable explanation. Sister James is relieved, but Sister Aloysius is still certain things are not what they should be.
The principal summons the boy’s mother, and is shocked – as are we – when the woman essentially admits her son is gay, and expresses gratitude for Father Flynn’s attentions to him: the boy’s father beats his son for his effeminacy, and his mother’s only wish is for him to last out the school year and graduate, so he will have a better chance at attending a good high school.
In a climactic confrontation, Sister Aloysius flaunts knowledge of Father Flynn’s scandalous past at other parishes, and the priest resigns. In the final scene – between Sisters Aloysius and James – we discover the bishop has appointed Father Flynn pastor of another parish, and Sister Aloysius admits she deceived the priest when she claimed to have evidence of past crimes. The final moment is a startling turnabout which reverses the roles of the two women.
Doubt is a gold mine for actors: all four performers in the original Broadway cast were nominated for Tonys (two won), and the same roles captured Oscar nominations for the actors in the 2008 film.
The International City Theatre cast lives up to the challenge. As Father Flynn, Michael Polak starts out as good-humored and approachable as he preaches, meets with the sisters, and coaches the parish ball team, but convincingly lapses into anger and male entitlement as he warns Sister Aloysius her job as principal may be in jeopardy. Erin Anne Williams, as Sister James, is all fresh-faced enthusiasm as she enters for her first meeting with Sister Aloysius, but soon is wracked by doubt about her abilities and intuition; as the play progresses, this young, vibrantly happy woman crumbles before us, becoming angry, suspicious, and unsure of what she thought she knew. Tamika Simpkins at first brings a grave dignity to Mrs. Muller, the boy’s mother, then smoothly transitions into a woman who’s willing to excuse inexcusable behavior if it will mean her son will eventually have a better life.
But it’s Eileen T’Kaye as Sister Aloysius who propels the play, as she tackles the huge role of Sister Aloysius with subtlety and vigor. Sister Aloysius’s martinet personality leads to a number of big laughs as she instructs the wide-eyed Sister James in the ways of the world, and Ms T’Kaye’s flawless comic timing lands every one. When matters turn serious, so does she, and we come to see Sister Aloysius as having not only a steel backbone, but also a willingness to fight dirty when necessary: in the final scene, she reprises a line from early in the play to the effect that in the pursuit of wrongdoing, one must sometimes step away from God. The last moment of the play is a difficult one for an actor, as it’s an abrupt about-face requiring a spot-on torrent of emotion, and Ms T’Kaye handles it splendidly.
As is to be expected at ICT, the technical elements are first-rate: an elegant and evocative set by Christopher Scott Murillo, fine lighting by Karyn D. Lawrence, costumes by Kim DeShazo, and sound by Dave Mickey.
The direction by caryn desai is fluid and assured, maintaining a crackling pace while giving the moments of introspection the time and attention they require.
Mr. Shanley’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning play was originally titled, simply, Doubt, but when it was published, he changed the title to Doubt: A Parable. It’s a tricky piece, as there’s no real evidence one way or the other as to Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence: one observer may be certain, another may be unsure. In the end, Mr. Shanley seems to land on the side of doubt: can we ever know for certain what’s in another’s heart or mind? Is certainty – which so many these days seem to possess about the motives of others – a virtue or a flaw? Do we, perhaps, only really become human when we’re willing to have… doubt?
Written by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by caryn desai
Through September 11
International City Theatre
300 East Seaside Way
Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: 562-436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org
Tracey Roman photos