Bad timing for Arizona Theatre Company was good news to an independent group of Tucson actors intent on presenting a recent, provocative, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play.
ATC snatched up the regional rights to John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, which garnered all sorts of acclaim in 2005. But last year, a touring production of Doubt lodged in Phoenix for a while, and because ATC presents all of its shows in the Phoenix area as well as in Tucson, it didn't make sense for the company to mount its own production of Doubt anytime soon.
Still, the play hasn't been presented in Tucson, and a couple of months ago, ATC graciously released the rights to a little band of enthusiasts, including director Amy Almquist. It was too late to coordinate a production with any other local companies, which were already locked into their own schedules, and next season would be too late--that would mean competing with the forthcoming film version. So Almquist and her actor friends are making like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and putting on a show all on their own--not in a barn, like in those old movies, but in a church sanctuary.
No, Doubt is not a religious pageant, but it does revolve around members of a religious community. It's set in 1964; a by-the-book nun who heads a Bronx Catholic school suspects a popular priest of inappropriate behavior with the school's first and only black student. The nun has only circumstantial evidence, but, as with any deeply religious person, belief is her most formidable weapon, and she mounts a campaign to remove the priest, involving a younger, impressionable nun and the boy's mother in the plan.
Doubt is not merely a "did he or didn't he?" story, nor is it unrelievedly serious. If you stayed up late to see Shanley's black absurdist comedy Dirty Story at Live Theatre Workshop in 2006, or The Big Funk at the same venue the year before, or Danny and the Deep Blue Sea the year before that, you know that Shanley has a remarkable talent for seriously probing human nature, even in the most unpromising or ridiculous situations.
Shanley subtitled Doubt "A Parable," and Almquist thinks it's an apt description of the work. "In a biblical context," she says, "a parable is a short story used to reveal deeper meaning about humanity or the truths of human life in a very broad sense, and that's exactly what this short play is. It's about the importance of doubt; one of the characters opens the piece by saying that doubt can be as powerful as certainty. Each of the characters in the piece goes through either powerful certainty or powerful doubt, and the consequences of either are displayed in this little microcosm."
The play's period, 1964, was one of upheaval within and outside the Catholic community. John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated; the iconoclastic hippie counterculture was on the rise; and Catholics were contending with the Vatican II process of adapting their faith and its practice to the modern world. The with-it young priest in Doubt is part of the adaptive process; his nemesis, the older nun, represents the self-assured, disciplined old guard.
Almquist says that Shanley may have set Doubt in the past, but his inspiration is the present: the scandals involving priests and little boys, and the scandalous actions of certain world leaders who make decisions based on belief rather than evidence. Says Almquist, "It's a cautionary tale about relying too much on certainty--or doubting too much. It's a rich parable that looks at the idea of what true spirituality is: Does it involve doubt, or is doubt a flaw in someone's spirituality?
"It really is the kind of piece that you leave the theater discussing and mulling over the issues."
The cast includes Art Almquist, the director's husband, as the priest; Lesley Abrams as his antagonist; Carrie Hill as the younger nun; and Tracy Loving as the boy's mother.
"This was our chance to do our dream roles and dream production," Almquist declares. "We've put our own money into this project to make it happen, with great support in the community for our technical needs and props and costumes. We feel proud that this will be as professional a production as you will see in town."