BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — Is he a pedophile priest or isn't he? That is the question at the heart of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's play that opens this weekend at American Stage.
It is 1964, and Sister Aloysius, principal of the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, and Father Flynn, the popular associate pastor, are on a collision course. She is a stern figure of moral certainty; he is a product of Vatican II, the ecumenical council in which Pope John XXIII sought to liberalize the Roman Catholic Church.
In many ways, their generational conflict was typical of the times. The only problem is that Aloysius is convinced that Flynn has sexually abused a 12-year-old boy — the school's first black student — but she can't prove it.
Doubt is a sort of mystery, and even the actors in the play keep some secrets from one another.
"We can't share absolutely everything within the rehearsal period, because these characters don't share everything,'' said Christine Decker, who plays Aloysius. "What makes it work is that we each have our own private biography.''
Eric Davis, the actor playing Flynn, has decided for himself if the priest is guilty or not, but he's not telling.
Decker played Aloysius in a 2008 production of Doubt in Orlando, and she heard from the audience about Flynn. "Women tended to find him guilty, and men tended to find him innocent,'' she said.
The deck is stacked against Flynn because of the history that we now know about Catholic clergy abusing children. Playwright Shanley balances that out by making him a charismatic guy's guy, the kind of priest who takes his young charges back to the rectory after basketball practice for a bull session. He delivers brilliant sermons on down-to-earth, personal topics such as doubt and gossip.
"I think that is probably why he makes Flynn so likable in the beginning, so warm and interesting and welcoming, because he has such a deficit to make up,'' Davis said. "I think that's Shanley's way of getting things on a level playing field to begin with, and then tugging you back and forth from scene to scene until the end. If Flynn weren't drawn so likably at the beginning, there wouldn't be much doubt.''
Doubt, directed by Todd Olson, is a tightly plotted 90-minute work performed without intermission. It won both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best new play in 2005.
"It's very elegantly done in the way Shanley lets you see these characters apart before you ever see them together,'' Davis said. "Flynn gets two large moments alone onstage before he ever interacts with any of the other characters. We likewise get to meet Aloysius in her world before we put these two people in the pressure cooker together.''
There are two other characters: Sister James (Samantha McKinnon Brown), a young teacher; and Mrs. Muller (Erica C. Sutherlin), mother of the boy who may have been molested.
The play includes sly references that suggest both guilt or innocence for Flynn. A scene in the parish garden between him and Sister James opens with the caw of a crow — said to represent liars. St. Nicholas, on the other hand, is patron saint of the falsely accused.
"These red herrings might give you a clue to his guilt or innocence, but then there's something to counteract it,'' Davis said.
Shanley, born in 1950, is a prolific playwright whose works include Sailor's Song, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Where's My Money?
His screenplay for the 1987 movie Moonstruck won an Academy Award. He wrote the screenplay and directed last year's movie of Doubt, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep.
He went to parochial schools, including St. Anthony's Grammar School in the Bronx, the model for the school in Doubt. He has said his inspiration for the play was a relative's experience with a priest convicted of child molestation.
In writing the play in 2003 and 2004, Shanley may also have had in mind George W. Bush and the certainty and conviction — the lack of doubt — that the president and his administration brought to the rush to go to war in Iraq. In a preface, the playwright argues for the philosophical importance of doubt:
"The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.