BY SANDY STAGGS
Kelly Wallace as Sister Aloysius and Maury Reed as Father Flynn in “Doubt.” Photo by Wallace Krebs
Centre Stage’s first foray into fringe this year, “Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley, sets a high bar for the rest of the series. It’s a holy, wholly flawless work of theatre.
Staged on the company’s set of the hit mainstage rock show “Shaboom-Shaboom,” “Doubt” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 2004 and is set at a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964.
In this shrewdly-written tantalizing drama, Father Flynn (played by Centre Stage regular Maury Reed) is accused of improper relations with a student (the school’s first African-American pupil) by the principal, Sister Aloysius (seasoned actor Kelly Wallace).
But we all have our doubts about the charges, and the motivations. As does young teacher Sister James (Kristin Gagliardi) who as the virgin history teacher – with Sister Aloysius’ unencumbered prodding – reports a suspicious incident to the principal: Father Flynn’s private meeting with the lad and the undeniable aroma of alter wine on the child’s breath.
This succinctly-structured play is comprised of a series of powerful, intense scenes, several of which are monologues by Father Flynn, some delivered as a sermon to us – the congregation – laced with colorful philosophical parables devoid of subtext, and readily planting fertile seeds that presage the conflicts that are engulfing the main characters: doubt, faith, the perils of gossip, and even “intolerance,” as the Father victoriously notes in his journal during a contentions confrontation with Sister Aloysius.
“Doubt” is invariably an actor’s dream with its brilliant dialogue and speeches, and the robust fully-fleshed characters. We feel we know these figures, and not from expository laziness, but of the rich insular environment Shanley has created of a moment in time: mere months after Kennedy’s assignation, the civil rights struggle, the diminishing influence, the misogyny, and hierarchy of the church, with the nuns on the lowest rung. And, of course, sexual abuse in the Church which was front news when this play premiered.
“Doubt” is fodder material for the fringe series, with its small cast and sparse set (just a desk, a couple of chairs and a bench) and director Ellen Jones’ sterling staging hasn’t an ounce of fat. The setting too is naturally ripe for simplicity and the near absence of color. Of course, the costumes like the nun’s habits help to set that mood.
Jones widely lets the actors dig into this material head-first and my, oh my, what an incredible landing.
Wallace reigns here as the irrepressible prison warden of a Nun, who continually espouses to tradition from her loathing of ballpoint pens, her objections to secular “pagan” Christmas songs like “Frosty the Snowman,” her disparaging views on the value of history, art and music, and her conviction that she knows best. She has encountered pedophile priests before and she is not going let another one get away. She will do everting in her powerless role to see Father Flynn’s demise.
Wallace is mesmerizing as Sister Aloysius. Her rhythm, her walk, the wringing of her hands like Lady Macbeth, the simple cocking of her head to signal her psychological dominance in a conflict, and her impeccable acumen delivery of the Sister’s humorous wry barbs. Yes, Sister Aloysius is funny. Very funny.
Flawless Reed, with his calm demeanor and trusting disposition is a casting dream as Father Flynn. Representing the new guard in the Church, Flynn wants to open the school to reflect the diverse and changing community. He values rapport with his students, not high-handed terrorism, and personal hygiene, as he makes the case for clean fingernails to us in one monologue. And, as we learn later, he makes a good case for the troubled boy under his wings.
Gagliardi is divine as the naïve Sister James – naïve, starry-eyed, modest, compassionate and fearful of Sister Aloysius. And if you close your eyes, her high-pitch voice closely mirrors that of Amy Adams, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 2007 film version starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis. Brava Miss Gagliardi.
Rounding out the cast and appearing in a single, albeit shockingly revealing, scene is Regina Wells (last seen in “Intimate Apparel” a couple seasons) as the boy’s mother Mrs. Muller. The only character outside the church, Mrs. Muller is a breath of fresh air in a period costume and Jackie Kennedy hat. Her hand movements in this scene are distracting a couple of times, but if there is ever a time to get out the Kleenex, this is it as Wells delivers an impeccable speech here that will rip your heart out.
Valerie Saporito is Stage Manger for “Doubt”.
“Doubt” run Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. through Feb. 6 at Centre Stage, 501 River St. in Greenville. Call (864) 233-6733or visit htttp://www.centrestage.org.