The truth makes for a bad sermon," says Father Flynn. "It tends to be confusing and has no firm conclusion."
Instead of telling the absolute, fact-based truth, Father Flynn makes up little stories, parables, to get his point across. "A Parable" is the subtitle of John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play, Doubt, and Shanley has taken the advice of his character Father Flynn: He never reveals the truth, never arrives at a firm conclusion, because Shanley is more interested in the conflict between conformity and questioning, and the assertion of truth in the absence of facts.
Belief can be dangerous, according to Shanley, so the handful of people constituting Independent Productions may be among the most dangerous people in town. They believed so strongly in the value of Doubt that they set up their own little company just to produce it, talked Arizona Theatre Company into releasing the rights to the work, and mounted an insightful, compelling production that's playing just one more weekend at an eastside church.
The story is set in a Catholic church and school in the Bronx in 1964. The reforms of Vatican II are loosening things up, and this does not sit well with the traditionalist Sister Aloysius, the school's principal; she especially disapproves of the progressive ways of her superior, Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius comes to suspect--no, believe--that Father Flynn has molested the school's first and only black student, and she is determined to have the priest removed. Yet this will be difficult; not only does she have no evidence (she enlists an impressionable young nun, Sister James, to help her bolster her claims), but she's up against the patriarchal, even quasi-misogynist structure of the Catholic Church. "There's no man I can go to," she points out, "and men run everything."
Shanley leaves Father Flynn's guilt or innocence undisclosed. The point isn't so much whether the priest did or didn't do it; the point is that we can be blinded by certainty, and that doubt can be both liberating and devastating.
Given that Shanley wrote this play in 2004 and called it a parable, you might think of Sister Aloysius as a stand-in for George W. Bush, determined to bring down Saddam Hussein for hoarding weapons of mass destruction that don't actually exist. If this is your interpretation of the play, then Father Flynn is obviously innocent. Otherwise, who knows? Shanley and this production's excellent actors and director cunningly manipulate our sympathies this way and that so that we must ultimately focus on the bigger issues, not just a single act that may or may not have happened.
Initially, our sympathies lie with Father Flynn (the boyish but intelligent Art Almquist), who has an easy way with the students and a manner of addressing his congregation that focuses on important matters of the individual soul rather than on details of church doctrine. Sister Aloysius (Lesley Abrams) is exactly the sort of Catholic-school nun everyone despises: strict, hawk-eyed, unyielding, old-fashioned, overbearing. Caught between them is Sister James (played with innocence and enthusiasm by Carrie Hill), a young teacher impressed by Father Flynn but intimidated by Sister Aloysius.
So, just on the basis of likability--as well as lack of hard evidence--we side with Father Flynn. Yet we also know that priestly abuse of children was rampant during this period, and that bishops routinely covered up their priests' misdeeds. And then there's Father Flynn's distress when Sister Aloysius looks into his past assignments; does he have such a strong reaction because he's afraid of being found out, or merely because he's indignant that the nun isn't even going through proper channels as she chips away at his reputation?
Director Amy Almquist (Art's wife) keeps a firm hand on the external ambiguity while making sure that each actor has a clear interior concept of what's going on. And nobody is ever reduced to caricature. Abrams faces a difficult challenge in that respect, but she doesn't make the mistake of giving Sister Aloysius a soft, lovable interior; what you see is what you get, but what you see is realistically grounded in what this woman has had to face during her decades as a nun and educator. She has earned her hardness. Abrams performs with great sincerity, as does Art Almquist, whose Father Flynn has the luxury of knowing that as a priest, he generally has the upper hand over the antagonistic nun; this gives the character a slight edge that a simpler nice-guy portrayal would lack.
Hill doesn't overplay Sister James' innocence, and again, the word "sincerity" comes to mind in her performance; she's fully credible when she says in distress, "Looking at people with suspicion makes me feel less close to God." And just as compelling as the other actors, even though her work is limited to a single scene, is T Loving as the black student's mother, a determined woman with complicated motivations of her own.
The action plays out in the sanctuary of Christ Presbyterian Church, a highly appropriate spot fully adequate to the task, especially with the addition and smart deployment of a few extra lights.
Because of the location, some people milling around the box office seemed to assume that this is a show put on by a little church troupe. Not at all; this is a fully professional production of a gripping play. About that, at least, there can be no doubt.