Thursday, December 14, 2017
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Answers don't come easy in Stage West's 'Doubt: A Parable'

For those who like the comfort of tidy, sure conclusions (think any Lifetime or Hallmark channel movie), the relatively short drama Doubt: A Parable, playing weekends through April 22 at the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse, will be vexing, as its ending is far from conclusive.

Set in a 1964 Bronx Catholic school and church, it's the story of the clash of personalities, beliefs and wills between the progressive, gregarious, relatively young Father Brendan Flynn (a charming Peter Clapsis) and the distant, traditional, rigid and suspicious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (a confidence-inspiring Patty Villegas).

Sister Aloysius is wary of Father Flynn from the day he arrives. She resents the male-dominated hierarchy of the church, and he seems to be the epitome of the arrogant, entitled, typical male in charge. She asks the newest teacher, Sister James (a young, gentle Jennifer Vilardi) to keep an eye on him. And, sure enough, the wide-eyed, naive and very eager Sister James detects something amiss in Flynn's actions — a private, one-on-one meeting with one of the altar boys, 12-year-old Donald Muller, the first black student at the Italian-Irish dominated school.

Aloysius is sure that Flynn has sexually abused the boy and confronts him with her allegations. He denies he did anything wrong, and from there, it's mental and emotional war between the two, especially when the child's mother (a lovely Arhonda Braggs) is summoned to Aloysius's office and seems more concerned about her boy finishing school than the idea that he may have been molested by the apparently loving and supportive Flynn, who is, after all, the only man in the child's life who seems to care for him.

Even so, Aloysius sees Flynn's actions as self-serving and manipulative and is determined to rid the school of the priest.

The easy way out would be to have a quick trial and decision, but playwright John Patrick Shanley isn't about to let his audience off so easy. He created characters who are complex and real, with no clear villains and no sharp heroes. He created a situation that is larger than the people involved — faith, conviction, self-doubt, trust, belief — which spreads far beyond the walls of St. Nicholas Church and school.

Clapsis' Flynn is charming and charismatic, seemingly clear-eyed as to purpose. He, like the sweet James, says he believes that love is more important than discipline and control, and that teachers and priests should love their little charges. Ms. Vilardi's James, with an almost childlike voice and ever-smiling and forgiving, naive outlook, agrees with Flynn, though even she is uncomfortable with his easy familiarity and casual touching.

Ms. Villegas's Aloysius is comfortingly firm and sure of her convictions. She may appear cold, distant and unfeeling, but her concern for an aging nun going blind shows her soft side, and her concern for her students' success in life is genuine. She's convinced that the best way to deal with the students is to be a tough, strong example, above the fray, not a palsy-walsy buddy. And the best way to deal with her boss is to confront him and force him to tell the truth — or what she believes is the truth.

Remember, the play is set in 1964, long before more than 5,000 Catholic priests and deacons had been accused of sexually molesting little boys, just in the United States. It would be two decades before the first conviction of a pedophile priest, Gilbert Gauthe, for molesting nearly 40 boys, and four decades before juries had awarded the victims of 4,392 priests more than $1 billion in damages.

Back in 1964, Aloysius was all alone, teetering out on a fragile limb with her suspicions — and she could be wrong.

Director Morgan Reid made perfect casting choices, starting with just the right voices and physical presences, then coaching them toward the most effective movements and expressions. Watch especially the jittery, unsure, but fiercely protective Ms. Braggs as young Donald's mom, Mrs. Muller. Of all the characters in the play, Mrs. Muller knows what's what; she lives in the real world, not in a protective cloister, and she knows what must be endured to make it in life, rough though it may be. Her scenes are the most heart-breaking, and Ms. Braggs does them with convincing grace and poise, as she seethes, eyes darting about the room, over Aloysius's unbending lack of understanding. You can almost feel Mrs. Muller wanting to give Aloysius a good shake and a sharp, "Wake up, girl!"

Ms. Reid and Gary Ammerman's multilevel set design incorporates the stifling, musty feel of an old, crumbling school house, with its low-wattage lights and heavy, mismatched furniture. Sound designer Lynda Benson gives musical clues to set the tone, and Misty Hornsby's light design has enough shadows to suggest the shadows in the story.

Doubt: A Parable is not for the glib or the certain. The pleasure of the story is its uncertainty, which is probably why it's recommended for mature audience, who can recognize and appreciate all the layers and nuances of the situation.

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