Anyone who attended Catholic school prior to the 1970s likely knew a nun like Sister Aloysius. The Catholic school principal at the center of John Patrick Shanley's award-winning play "Doubt" is filled with devotion, piety and spiritual certitude. She is domineering and can be harsh with her fellow nuns and students, yet inspires many to greatness.
"Doubt" is, like Sister Aloysius herself, a dramatic study in contrasts and inner turmoil set in a fictional New York City parish during the tumultuous 1960s. The play won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. Public interest in the work was high even before its 2004 premiere, given Shanley's pedigree (he previously won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay of the hit 1987 movie "Moonstruck") not to mention the real-life sexual abuse scandal roiling the Catholic Church at the time.
Long Beach's International City Theatre (ICT) has mounted a beautifully designed, powerfully acted revival of "Doubt." Playing now through Sept. 11, the play remains as topical and potent as it was a decade ago. Already unimpressed by the non-traditional style of Father Flynn, their parish's younger priest, Sister Aloysius becomes convinced that he is having an "improper" relationship with a student. That the student in question is the first African-American boy ever admitted makes her allegation all the more troubling.
Sister Aloysius embarks on a crusade to force Father Flynn to admit the truth. While he vehemently professes his innocence, the priest can also be evasive and defers to hierarchical protections accorded him by the pastor and local bishop. Meanwhile, young Sister James finds herself torn between her trust in Fr. Flynn and her obedience to Sister Aloysius. The boy's mother is also reluctant to believe Sister Aloysius's allegation given the personal interest Fr. Flynn has taken in her son, which the boy sorely needs.
This is an explosive scenario, especially in light of the play's 1964 setting, when such things were only discussed by church leaders behind closed doors — if they were discussed at all. Shanley, though, isn't interested in the church's history of covering up sexual abuse by clergy so much as he is in the dynamic between faith, doubt and certitude that plays out continuously in many believers' lives. This isn't solely a religious dynamic but can also be seen in politics and corporations. The author calls "Doubt" a parable, and it is one that relates to various situations.
Eileen T'Kaye, one of our finest local actors, is perfectly cast as Sister Aloysius in ICT's production. She gives the nun an expected fierceness and staunch exterior, but subtly suggests her own inner struggle to uncover the truth. As Fr. Flynn, Michael Polak is necessarily charismatic while careful to plant seeds of suspicion as well as trust among the audience. Tamika Simpkins has only one scene as Mrs. Muller, the student's mother, but she is T'Kaye's dramatic match. Erin Anne Williams rounds out the cast of four as naive Sister James, who ends up being the play's dramatic anchor to a large degree.
Director caryn desai (sic), who additionally serves as ICT's Artistic Director/Producer, does her typically consummate job of engaging both her actors and audience. That being said, I felt the final, pivotal scene of the play was rushed on opening night, which also led a couple of viewers around me to remark "That's the end?" as the lights came down. I encourage T'Kaye and Williams to take a little more time with it in the future.
Christopher Scott Murillo's scenic design perfectly evokes the 1960s parish school setting with church, office and garden sections. Kim DeShazo's costumes aren't quite as true to the period, but serve their dramatic function well.
"Doubt" runs weekends through Sept. 11 at downtown's Beverly O'Neill Theatre, 330 E. Seaside Way. For tickets, call (562) 436-4510 or go to internationalcitytheatre.org.