'Doubt: A Parable' by John Patrick Shanley
B&E Theatre in association with The Church of the Holy Trinity (behind Toronto's Eaton Centre)
B&E’s production of Shanley’s viscerally explosive ‘Doubt: A Parable’ becomes a meaningful conversation-starter
Playwright John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer prize-winner is one way to begin an important dialogue amid the changes in our world. I attended the performance with my sister, a practicing Catholic like I am. We had several minutes of meaningful discussion about how the 1964 world culture and its people saw things completely different from the 2022 world we know today.
The time is 1964. We are at St. Nicholas Church and School in the Bronx, New York. A charismatic, youthful Father Flynn (Brian Bisson) delivers a homily at Sunday mass about doubt. We then enter the school’s office of Principal Sr. Aloysius (Deborah Drakeford) busily working at her desk. Grade 8 teacher Sr. James (Emma Nelles) enters to check on how a student is doing after an incident with a bloody nose. After a bit of chit-chatty discussion about the events of the school day, the topic then turns to Fr. Flynn and his most recent homily concerning doubt.
As the story continues, palpable, rising tension simmers between Aloysius and Flynn, especially concerning the young (and only Black) student in James’s class and school, Donald Muller, and the possibility of improper relations between the priest and the boy.
What made this production ring convincingly true were several good choices made that kept me riveted as the plot builds to its crescendo of the final confrontation between the headstrong principal of staunch values juxtaposed with the ‘modern world’ Vatican II understanding of the priest.
First, the decision to immerse the play in a Church worked well.
Did it bother me that the 175-year-old beautiful Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity was used as the Catholic setting for the story?
Not at all. I completely bought it without any hesitation whatsoever.
Many of the overhanging light fixtures reminded me of the Catholic Church I attended in south Oshawa in the late 60s. What cinched it for me was the recorded pre-show organ music. Many are hymns sung at Sunday masses today. I even found myself hearing the words to the hymns in my head so a nod to Stewart Arnott, Jack Considine and J. D. Smith.
I liked how portions of the church were effectively used to draw attention. Aloysius’s office and the church garden are on riser steps on stage left and right. Flynn enters from the back at the top of the show. His second homily concerning the topic of gossip is gloriously delivered from the beautifully ornate pulpit stage right. The hallway to Aloysius’s office is the long aisle in the nave in front of the altar. Above the altar was the verse: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty’ and underneath unfolds a story that mightily contradicts this verse.
If I did have a slight quibble, and minor at that, it is the echo within the church. It was difficult to hear Bisson, Nelles, and Drakeford for a few minutes at the opening for some sound issues. It did improve considerably about 7-8 minutes in and remained fine for the rest of the performance.
Stewart Arnott’s carefully nuanced direction of the sub-text layers of possible underlying meaning remains consistently solid and valid throughout. He counterbalances those dramatic moments with humour in the script and allowed me to laugh while realizing the very real and possible horrific implications of abuse.
The Catholic faith teaches us to search for truth since certainty can also imply a slight hesitation. For me, the search for the truth in wondering if Flynn is guilty of these improper relations had me scratching my head at times. Director Arnott and this terrific ensemble of actors made me think and made me sit in the deep discomfort of uncertainty as Kim Nelson (who plays Mrs. Muller) pointed out in an earlier interview I had with the cast this past week.
Brian Bisson is an engaging Father Flynn who instinctively and securely knows how to speak to young, impressionable boys as shown in the basketball drill. Bisson’s emphatic final confrontation with Deborah Drakeford’s Aloysius becomes enthralling to watch and hear.
As Sr. Aloysius, Deborah Drakeford initially appears headstrong and unfeeling, especially in the second scene where she deflates Sr. James’s confidence as a teacher. Drakeford confidently excavates further to show us an Aloysius who has experienced veritable struggles prior to 1964 and survived but perhaps was scarred and altered in the process. She was previously married and lost her husband in what she states, “the war against Adolf Hitler”. Aloysius knows and adheres to her place in the Church hierarchy but that doesn’t stop her from exposing what she believes to be her certainty about Flynn and what he might have done. Aloysius only comments about her certainty and not the truth that the Catholic faith teaches, and this makes Drakeford’s final scene with Sr. James in the garden even more poignant.
Playwright Shanley dedicates his play to the many orders of the Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others. From my research, Shanley had a teacher whom he adored like ‘Sister James’ when he attended Catholic parochial school. Emma Nelles offers a lovely, touching performance as Sister James. Nelles exudes a quiet strength as the young teacher which Aloysius respects since the two become confidantes. A strong bond of emotional connection and conviction between Bisson and Nelles piqued my curiosity when she states she doesn’t believe the rumours about the priest.
Although she only appears in one scene, Kim Nelson’s Mrs. Muller is suspicious and hesitant initially as any parent would be when called to the principal’s office (combined with the truth her son is the only black child in the school). Nelson intently listens and responds with clear assuredness all the while standing by her son and recognizing his strength and goodness amid his present hard home life. When Muller drops her bombshell that still makes me gasp every time I hear it, Nelson’s performance strength of quiet stoicism of “It’s just til June” strongly underscores the search for trying to understand the truth of this situation involving Donald and Flynn.
Final Comments: For its inaugural production, B&E Productions made a wise choice to stage Shanley’s unquestionably relevant play which is even more so today. It might have been interesting to listen to what others in the audience thought.
I look forward to seeing what B&E has planned for future productions.
Running Time: approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
‘Doubt: A Parable’ runs to November 13 at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 19 Trinity Square (right behind the Toronto Eaton Centre). Performances run Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm. For tickets, please visit www.bneproductions.ca. Future audience members are asked kindly to order tickets online.
B&E Productions in association with The Church of the Holy Trinity presents ‘Doubt: A Parable’ by John Patrick Shanley
Produced by Brian Bisson & Emma Campbell
Directed by Stewart Arnott
Costume Designer: Lara Berry
Lighting Designer: Gareth Crew
Props: David Hoekstra and John Rubino
Sound Design: Stewart Arnott, Jack Considine and J. D. Smith
Stage Manager: Meghan Specht
Performers: Brian Bisson, Deborah Drakeford, Emma James, Kim Nelson