Review: Doubt at Pacific Theatre
Doubt is the second play by John Patrick Shanley on Pacific Theatre’s 2011/12 season, the first being Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, which was previously reviewed here. It is a very clever pairing: the plays complement one another well. Where Danny explores humanity’s ability to overcome obstacles and connect with others, Doubt does the opposite. It explores humanity’s ability to deceive one another, and asks just how far a person might go on suspicion alone.
The story takes place in a Catholic school in the 60s that is presided over by Sister Aloysius. A young, idealistic eighth grade teacher, Sister James, is summoned by Sister Aloysius, who – through hesitant implication – reveals that she harbours suspicions about Father Flynn, the school’s priest and gym teacher. The notion planted, Sister James returns to the senior nun to report an incident involving Father Flynn and the school’s only black student, Donald Muller. Flynn’s wrongdoing becomes a certainty in Sister Aloysius’ mind. She takes action, using what avenues are available to her within limiting Catholic dogma. Through fiery confrontations with Flynn, a fraught meeting with Donald’s mother, and the internal politicking of her order, Sister Aloysius remains firm in her condemnation of Flynn, despite no evidence of any damning truth.
It is smart, tightly paced theatre that keeps the audience engaged and questioning throughout. Following both the first and second acts, audience members could be heard to loudly exclaim that the 45 minutes of action seemed to have passed by in only 15 or 20.
Director Ron Reed (also Artistic Director of Pacific Theatre) leads a talented cast of actors through the tense proceedings. Erla Faye Forsyth anchors the cast as Sister Aloysius. She is a stony, unyielding force, without ever feeling cold or distant; it is ever apparent that her conviction and actions are rooted in a place of deep compassion and tenderness. As the possibly maligned, possibly predatory Father Flynn, Giovanni Mocibob brings a wounded sincerity. His Flynn is not the political, threatening figure portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film, but a cornered man who lashes out. Kaitlin Williams’ Sister James is a warm, earnest woman, who is keenly conflicted at having to harbour such negative thoughts. Though her presence on stage is only one short scene, Leslie Lewis Sword’s Mrs. Muller ramps up the tension of the second act and creates a state of even more confusion.
The atmosphere of the play is helped by the unique layout of the Pacific Theatre, where the audience is divided into two facing halves and the actors perform in the middle ground. This creates a cloistered sense of observation and claustrophobia that perfectly suits the work’s tone. Nicole Bach’s set is a large wooden platform, its only feature an altar that can cleverly lower to become Sister Aloysius’ desk or a bench in the garden. This simplicity is of great benefit to the story as it allows for incredibly fast scene changes that keep the story’s momentum and does not allow its tension to dissipate.
Well-paced, suspenseful, and skillfully performed, Pacific Theatre’s Doubt is a play that will keep audiences thinking and questioning well after the curtain has fallen.
Doubt runs until March 31 at Pacific Theatre. Tickets available at PacificTheatre.org.