We live in a world where self-righteous anger is the new god. It’s getting to the point where we can barely shift our torches and pitchforks aside long enough to tweet or post on Facebook. We hate so freely and express ourselves so crudely that we don’t notice we are tearing our community apart. Because our belief in our righteousness is what matters, not the facts.
Nowhere does our impatience with the facts grip us more than on issues of child sex abuse. We find the crime so appalling, so unthinkable, that the slightest whiff of trouble sends us out into the streets. We’re out there so fast, we can’t be bothered to ask whether the individual we’re attacking was actually guilty. Many are, but that doesn’t mean all are.
Set in a Catholic primary school in the early 1960’s, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-prize winning drama Doubt is a stem-winder of a play. But it would be a disservice to the playwright to say it’s about priests getting away with pedophilia. Because if it’s done right, as it is here in Michael Wright’s thoughtful production with SeeNoSun Onstage, you realize it’s about our own obsession with crime and punishment.
Shanley confronts us with flawed and vulnerable human beings, all with their own secrets, none of which we can ever know. It doesn’t help that the traditions of Catholic confession, coupled with the strict gender hierarchy of the Church, render it impossible for the priests and nuns here to communicate directly, in ways we take for granted in a typical detective or courtroom drama. Ambiguities in Shanley’s play abound, and the dialogue is so sparse—and the characters so reluctant to communicate their innermost feelings—that in the end we learn more about the darkness in our own souls. If it’s done right—and it’s done right here—we have no idea whether any crime was committed.
So much for plays clearing things up.
The action is sparked by an opening sermon, delivered by Father Flynn; it is supposed to be sincere, but with a hint of something else going on in the priest’s mind even as he speaks. As Flynn, Evan Crump’s delivery strikes just the right balance between spiritual counsel and unconscious revelation of the priest’s internal struggles. It is these fleeting, revelatory moments that trigger a suspicion that something may be out of kilter.
Hard on the mixed messages of that sermon we meet Sister Aloysius, headmistress of a Catholic school where Father Flynn also serves. Like us, she has spotted a possible subliminal message in Father Flynn’s delivery, and suspects the worst. Wendy Wilmer’s Aloysius is Gibraltar-like in both her personality and her insistence on wrongdoing; she is brutally precise as well, and the surgical precision with which she cuts into the souls of those around her is a highlight of this production. Wilmer makes mincemeat of the young Sister James (the affectingly sincere Emily H. Gilson), whose youthful idealism is shattered in the course of a single brief visit to Sister Aloysius’ office.
Aloysius’ crusade against Father Flynn centers on the perception of wrongdoing with a newcomer, the first black student to attend the school. When the boy shows up in class distracted, with alcohol on his breath, Aloysius goes on the attack. But her refusal to interview the child himself (let alone other eyewitnesses) and her insistence on subterfuge leave us with no hard evidence. In effect, we see the world through Aloysius’ eyes, and it’s not a vision of the world we should care for.
The only effective balance to Aloysius is the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller, whose inner strength is borne of intense personal struggles at home. Mary Miller Booker owns the stage with her quiet resolve as Mrs. Muller. She deflects Sister Aloysius’ suspicions which—even if true—turn out to be the least of her worries. The boy comes from a violent home, and Father Flynn’s kindness (no matter how we choose to interpret it) is a blessing to her.
SeeNoSun’s set design is simple and enables the action to shift quickly from Aloysius’ office to the pulpit to the schoolyard, and the choice of Johnny Cash as the production’s troubadour is spot-on. Jane Byrd’s costumes, particularly for Flynn’s sermons (which mark the passing of the liturgical cycle with their colors) support the action nicely, and Colin Dieck’s lighting makes good use of the Anacostia Arts Center’s small black-box theatre.
SeeNoSun OnStage, dedicated to the genres of horror and suspense, takes a decidedly personal and psychological turn with its most recent offering. As much fun as it may be to indulge in the dark fantasy world of an H. P. Lovecraft, there are few things more horrifying than our easy suspicion of others.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Anacostia Arts Center is near the Anacostia Metro on the Green Line, and (for drivers on Northbound 395 and Eastbound 695) just across the 11th Street Bridge.