Doubt can divide, bond, play at Oakland shows

By Lorraine Spencer

The performance by the small cast was impressive.

Doubt can be a bond as powerful as certainty.

This line, spoken by Father Flynn, describes the complex plot of “Doubt,” which opened Friday at the Oakland. The characters in the play by John Patrick Shanley are alternately bonded and divided by their doubts.

Set at St. Nicholas Church and School in the Bronx in 1964, “Doubt” centers on two nuns and their suspicions regarding the parish priest. The two are initially bonded by their concern. However, as one woman becomes more certain, the other has her doubts. As the play progresses, Shanley presents a complex lesson: Doubt can be as powerful a divider as a bond.

The play opens with a monologue: Father Flynn’s Sunday sermon, delivered impeccably by James McClellan. It is 1964. Last year, President Kennedy was assassinated. The world is changing. People feel isolated, unsure.

Within the parish, there is also unrest. Sister Aloysius, the school principal, has become suspicious of Father Flynn. She does not like his modern ideas or his friendly manner with the children. Sister James, on the other hand, looks up to Father Flynn. A new nun, Sister James loves children and teaching. But she also has a strong desire to please her superior sister.

Sister Aloysius enlists Sister James in her plot to take down the priest. After Sister James witnesses some strange behavior between the priest and a student, Sister Aloysius thinks she has the proof she needs. However, Father Flynn’s explanations and the intervention of the student’s mother reveal plot twists that make the case much more complicated than the nuns anticipated.

By the end of the play, the characters are split and the audience is left unsure of the truth. The play’s title is made all the more relevant.

The small cast of the play delivered an impressive performance. McClellan’s Father Flynn is a complex character. McClellan’s homilies were delivered perfectly. He has obviously heard a few in his life. Meanwhile, his evolution from righteous to hurt to broken throughout the play left the audience with both sympathy and doubt.

Joanne Carney-Smith played Sister Aloysius with an iron will. An old-fashioned nun, she was set in her convictions and determined to see justice. As Sister James, April Sauline was the complete opposite. Her novice nun was a sweet, open-minded character, as easy to build up as to tear down. Her innocence led to a lightening of an otherwise dark play.

As Mrs. Muller, Carla D. Gipson gave perhaps the most complex portrayal in the play. Though she was in only one scene, her performance was vital to the doubt that infused the script. Gipson was at once loving, concerned, defensive, angry and bitter. Her character’s confrontation with Sister Aloysius provided the turning point for the play.

Although “Doubt” is set in 1964, its implications are still alive today. The Catholic Church recently experienced a scandal that began 40 years ago by events such as the one portrayed in the play. As the night came to a close, the audience was left with only one certainty: Nothing is certain.

“Doubt” continues Saturday and Sept. 12 at 8 p.m., and today and Sept. 13 at 2 p.m.

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