When I was in Catholic grammar school decades ago, my classmates and I learned the biblical story of Thomas the Apostle, whose skepticism about Jesus' Resurrection earned him the catchy nickname Doubting Thomas. Not until Thomas could actually touch the wounds of the risen Christ would he believe, and, according to the Gospel of St. John, Jesus later commented, "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Jesus was big on faith.
You might say a reverse situation exists in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, in which ever-vigilant Sister Aloysius has no hard evidence that Father Flynn has been preying on altar boys, yet she responds to her intuition and believes with blind faith that the parish priest is up to no good and is being protected by his superiors.
Shanley's play was topical in 2004, when it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it remains so, as reportage on priest abuse continues to crop up in the news. The author himself was in Nashville last week, a key guest at Lipscomb University's 30th annual Christian Scholars' Conference. Fortuitously, the college theater department staged his play for his (and our) benefit, giving Nashville its second major production in two years, following Tennessee Repertory Theatre's notable 2008 mounting.
The latest version, directed by Lipscomb Theater Department chair Mike Fernandez, has as much to recommend it theatrically as did its local predecessor, though it appears to approach the material with slightly less doubt about its internal incidents. Doubtless that's because Nan Gurley, as the crusading nun, comes across a tad less emotionally suspect, and her priest-nemesis, played by Steven Pounders, appears to be more readily vulnerable to her accusations.
Nevertheless, the same lasting message is conveyed within the play's 1960s stage ambience: Catholic priests were behaving aberrantly years ago, and they often escaped discipline, sometimes getting promoted to positions of even more authority. In this telling, we're also reminded of the church's entrenched paternalism, thus making Sister Aloysius' task of exposing a wayward reverend that much more difficult.
In a court of law, Father Flynn would probably skate: The evidence against him is circumstantial, and the mother of the boy he's supposedly abusing won't speak out against him. Hence the play's conclusion is a somewhat neuter affair, though we are gratifyingly led to that point by some authentically dramatic moments that include the determined nun's tense inquisition and the defensive priest's affecting, if ironic, restatement of Christ's message of love and tolerance.
Gurley and Pounders are consistent in their characterizations and wholly professional in their performances. Also delivering a competent reading is Beki Baker as young Sister James, who comes on pretty naive in the early going, endures Sister Aloysius' Polonius-like admonitions, gets caught up with confusion in the attack on Father Flynn, and then — perhaps more than anyone here — earns a hard-won reality check.
And tearing it up big-time is Alicia Haymer, who plays Mrs. Muller, the mother of the African-American youngster engaged suspiciously with the priest. Haymer, who's honed her acting chops locally with various community and pro-level theater groups, renders us an extended cameo that is credibly pained, capturing a parent's anguish and offering a glimmer of the changing societal landscape of the play's era.
The pulpit-and-parochial-school set by Paul Gatrell, on loan from Belmont University and Actors Bridge Ensemble, is simple but very effective, with stained-glass windows providing the only real color countering the play's usually dark mood. Tennessee Rep standbys Trish Clark and Jamie Scott supply the costumes, and David Hardy designed the subtle lighting.
Doubt is subtitled a parable, which means "a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson." The exact nature of that lesson is hard to pin down, though. Absolute justice is unattainable? People are cowards? Priests get away with murder? The play may simply exhibit too much melodrama for it to be anything more than entertainment. Still, that's certainly enough to ask of an evening of theater.
Short runs, short takes
On short notice, three local theater companies announced brief runs for the upcoming weekend.
Street Theatre Company will present Flashback to Murder, an interactive musical murder mystery set during the 20-year reunion of the high school class of 1955. Disco rules, poodle skirts are passé and the former prom queen meets an untimely demise. Performances are June 11-12 at Tulip Street Methodist Church, 522 Russell St. in East Nashville. The cast features Shane Bridges, Alan Smith, Jaime Janiszewski, Cori Laemmel, Lindsay Terrizzi Hess and Erica Cantrell, many of whom were seen recently in the very successful STC production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Meanwhile, south of town, Lamplighter's Theatre of Smyrna will present the first entry in its Black Box Summer Season. Shakespeare Unbound, a send-up of the immortal Bard, will be performed June 11-13 at the Smyrna Assembly campus at 14119 Old Nashville Highway.
Finally, Sista Style Productions offers a June 11-12 remounting of William Mastrosimone's Extremities, directed by Shawn Whitsell and starring Rashad Rayford, Mary McCallum, Molly Breen and Shelena Walden. Mastrosimone's play, a dark examination of a rape case, contains strong language and violent situations. This company originally presented a version of the work at the 2009 Shades of Black Theatre Showcase. Extremities will be performed at Darkhorse Theater.
Nashville Children's Theatre announced its 2010-2011 season on June 4. The company's lineup of six shows includes Bud, Not Buddy (Sept. 28-Oct. 17), based on Christopher Paul Curtis' Newbery Medal-winning novel; Seussical (Nov. 2-Dec. 19), remounted by popular demand; Jason and the Golden Fleece (Jan. 18-Feb. 6), John Olive's adaptation based on a Greek epic poem; the regional premiere of Goodnight Moon (Feb. 22-April 3), Chad Henry's adaptation of one of the most famous children's books of all time; Robin Goodfellow (April 19-May 22), the late storyteller Aurand Harris' reworking of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, told from the point of view of Puck; and Jack's Tale (June 10-26), an original musical by Scot Copeland and Paul Carrol Binkley, based upon Appalachian Scots-Irish tales.
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