'Doubt' poses ethical dilemmas, questions for Okoboji audienceOKOBOJI, Iowa — “What do you do when you’re not sure?” queries Father Flynn of his congregation — er, audience — in the opening moments of “Doubt.”
By: Jane Turpin Moore, Worthington Daily Globe
OKOBOJI, Iowa — “What do you do when you’re not sure?” queries Father Flynn of his congregation — er, audience — in the opening moments of “Doubt.”
Whatever your answer, you are bound to be less assured of the proper response after viewing this week’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play at Okoboji Summer Theatre (OST).
A moral and intellectual puzzle, “Doubt,” by noted playwright John Patrick Shanley, is more thought-provoking than entertaining — think along the lines of “Have you stopped beating your wife?” and you’ll have the right idea.
Billed as an adult contemporary drama, it’s a compact play (only 90 minutes) that could be appreciated by even mature 11-year-olds, for the “adult” recommendation arises not from rough language or risqué action but from the need to think and assess constantly as one views. Nearly every line has multiple layers of meaning, or causes one to question which speaker’s reality is closest to the truth — if such a thing exists.
Set in a Catholic church school nestled in the Bronx of 1964, “Doubt” uses only four characters to address a number of ethical and philosophical questions, centering on suspicions the cold and self-righteous Sister Aloysius harbors about the charismatic Father Flynn.
The innocent Sister James is a central third character, with the person of Mrs. Muller rounding out the cast and the play’s considerable shadows.
Did Father Flynn really seduce — or molest — Donald Muller, the school’s first black student who is suggested to be emotionally vulnerable and maybe even a little bit (in his mother’s words) “that way?” Or is he just being set up by Sister Aloysius?
Is Sister Aloysius operating on the basis of noble motives or is she merely out to get any man in power because of a lifetime of slights and tyranny by an unchallengeable male hierarchy?
Will Sister James ever again be at peace, having been rudely removed from her personal Garden of Eden when Sister Aloysius refuses to let her remain blissfully naive and thus free of worry?
Why wouldn’t Mrs. Muller want her son to be rescued if he were the victim of abuse?
These are just a few of the many conundrums left spinning in one’s head at the curtain’s close.
The three main characters in the OST production of “Doubt” are uniformly excellent.
Matt Weiss is featured as Father Flynn. A 2006 Stephens College and OST alumnus, Weiss is terrific as the priest who uses his charm, intelligence and silver tongue to gain a fan base — but also the scorn of Sister Aloysius.
Gwen Wotawa, another 2006 Stephens College grad, gives a splendid performance as Sister Aloysius. Portraying a holy — and wholly — unsympathetic character isn’t always easy, though Wotawa demonstrates her skillful acting in a role this reviewer could easily see, say, Frances McDormand handling. (In fact, “Doubt” is set to become a film starring Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Amy Adams as Sister James.)
Of current Stephens College student Emily Peterson, one might ask, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing playing nuns all the time?” Here, Peterson takes on the person of the earnest but innocent Sister James; earlier this summer she was Sister Leo in OST’s “Nunsense II.” A lovely young woman with expressive eyes and dimples, Peterson was perfect as she progressed from a guileless, unsuspecting state to a troubled, hand-wringing one.
The role of Mrs. Muller, being played alternately by Melissa Harris and Ashley Davis, was filled on Tuesday evening by Harris. Harris was underwhelming and somewhat wooden in the part, stumbling on a few lines and never achieving the level of energy and passion exhibited by her fellow actors.
Another slight downfall of this production is its set. Though stunning, it is unnecessarily complicated for such a small cast. Guest scenic designer Liz Freese, who has worked internationally, seemed to go out of her way to demonstrate her skill. The sad effect was to distract the audience with 90-second scene changes, to which the music wasn’t quite synchronized (it frequently ended before the set was fully in place).
Director Lamby Hedge, in her 23rd year with OST and her third as its associate artistic director, did a great job of eliciting top performances from Weiss, Wotawa and Peterson.
Rich with first-rate writing, “Doubt” is not without its humorous moments and lines, including this one delivered by Sister Aloysius: “Nuns fall, you know. It’s the habit — it catches us up more often than not.” Also, a discussion among the three about potential changes in the Christmas pageant is amusing, with a deconstruction of “Frosty the Snowman” bringing the entire audience to ringing laughter.
Ultimately, though, it’s the questions about truth, certitude and impressions — can any two people ever see the same thing and interpret it the same way? — that drive this worthy play. By the end, thoughtful viewers may relate to Sister James’ feelings as expressed in her last line: “I can’t sleep anymore; everything seems uncertain.”
“Doubt” runs at OST through Sunday. For its final show of the 2008 season, OST presents the family musical “The Secret Garden” from Aug. 12-17.