STONEHAM — The Stoneham Theatre’s production of “Doubt, A Parable” delivers every ounce of this complex drama’s tension, urgency, and ambiguity.
Under the crisp direction of Caitlin Lowans, a first-rate quartet of actors — Karen MacDonald, Gabriel Kuttner, Kathryn Myles, and Miranda Craigwell — deliver playwright John Patrick Shanley’s dialogue with carefully shaded nuances.
The setting of “Doubt” is specific — a Catholic grammar school in 1964 — and yet Shanley shifts almost imperceptibly to a theme that is both timeless and universal in his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play. The action centers on Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas School, a leader steeped in tradition and absolutely certain of her convictions. As Sister Aloysius, MacDonald exudes self-confidence, taking pride not only in her knowledge of her students’ names and abilities, but also in her finely tuned understanding of human nature and her unshakable sense of duty. Although Sister Aloysius initially seems cold and commanding, MacDonald adds her own distinct style, offering occasional glimpses of humanity and vulnerability with a gentle change of tone or a sympathetic glance over her glasses.
But the ever-vigilant Sister Aloysius suspects the enthusiastic Father Brendan Flynn (Kuttner) is “interfering” with one of her students, who also happens to be the only black student in the school. Her fears only deepen when the inexperienced Sister James (Myles) confesses that she has, in fact, noticed something out of the ordinary between the two.
In the series of meetings that unfold, Shanley deftly explores the balance of power: between a principal and a teacher, between a female nun and a male priest, between a parent and a principal. Each scene offers a little more insight into Sister Aloysius, increasingly complicating her motives and her sense of righteousness.
Sister Aloysius’s confrontations with Father Flynn are framed within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, which places him above her in the pecking order, despite her position as principal. Watching the power dynamic between MacDonald and Kuttner’s characters almost makes words unnecessary. Sister Aloysius bristles when Father Flynn sits, not in the seat she has offered, but behind the principal’s desk. Father Flynn pretends to be oblivious to this insult to the nun’s authority, but later makes clear his understanding that she has no power over him.
We can almost see Sister Aloysius’s determination building, especially when Father
Flynn casts himself as an affable, uncomplicated man, eager to provide the boys with a role model and connect with them as their basketball coach. Even a meeting with the student’s mother (Craigwell) will not shake Sister Aloysius from her goal, despite the mother’s insistence that the issue is not what it might seem to the principal.
As the play barrels to its disturbing conclusion, director Lowans keeps the balance of power shifting delicately among each of her four actors, never allowing the audience to get too comfortable with one character or another. This production of “Doubt” casts a powerful spell that will find you holding your breath and questioning your convictions.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.