Not a book, but a play -- so sue me.

Regan Adair in Doubt at WaterTower-small.jpg

The case of Rudy Kos, the Dallas priest who was convicted of sexual assault in 1997, made Dallas one of the first Catholic dioceses to be rocked by a sex abuse scandal - one of the first of dozens of such scandals throughout the church.

WaterTower Theatre in Addison deserves praise, then, for finally premiering Doubt in North Texas. Doubt is John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize (and Tony Award) -winning drama about a priest, who may be a pedophile, and the nun, the school principal, who sets out to bring him down. I say WaterTower is finally bringing the play here because we're getting to see Doubt two and a half years after it debuted in such places as Seattle, Singapore and New Zealand -- and only a few months before it opens as a Hollywood film.

Doubt is clearly inspired by the horrific raft of recent cases of pedophile priests and what often turned out to be the collusion of the Church hierarchy in covering up their crimes. It got so bad for the church that at one point, David Letterman joked that with the Gambinos gone, the Catholic Church was now the largest organized crime syndicate in the country. Shanley sets his drama in the Bronx in 1964, though. This permits Doubt to be separate, to explore its own case without entangling itself in all of the accusations and counter-accusations, the hundred-million dollar court settlements we've seen the past decade.

Yet it's impossible to un-learn what we learned in the '90s. It's impossible for us to watch Doubt without knowing what would follow, without seeing it through (broken) stained-glass windows.

Setting the drama in 1964 also means that Doubt presents the Church's struggles over authority and renewal, struggles prompted by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Sister Aloysius is definitely 'old school;' she believes that proper penmanship is next to godliness and that the best tool for educating children is knocking some fear into them. She is unsettled by Father Flynn, the new parish priest who wants to knock the dust off the church, wants it to join the neighbrohood as a part of the 'family.'

The play becomes a test of wills between priest and nun. She suspects Father Flynn has already molested a young boy, but her efforts at finding proof are hampered by traditional church hierarchy.

Flynn: You have to stop this campaign against me!

Sister: You can stop it at any time.

Flynn: How?

Sister: Confess and resign.

Flynn: You are attempting to destroy my reputation. But the result of all this is going to be your removal, not mine.

Sister: What are you doing in this school?

Flynn: I am trying to do good!

As a play, Doubt could probably succeed with little more than three chairs and a desk onstage. It doesn't really need much; it's an efficient little engine (four characters, 90 minutes). But WaterTower Theatre is one of the great theatrical spaces in North Texas; you could stage almost anything there. So, as if to justify presenting such a small-scale drama in the space, director Terry Martin has had designer John Hobbie force a minor basilica on to the stage. It's impressive but hardly necessary.

As Father Flynn, Regan Adair has an easy charm, a telling, enigmatic distance - and a variable, light Irish accent. For her part, Nancy Sherrard plays the chilly Sister Aloysius like a comic dowager out of Oscar Wilde, all imperious harrumphs and frowns. Sherrard is best when her over-rich theatrical delivery is stripped away in the play's finest scene, a taut confrontation with the young boy's mother, strongly played by M. Denise Lee.

Doubt - as in 'beyond a reasonable doubt' - deals in suspicions and evidence. No trial actually happens in Doubt, but it's very much in the tradition of the courtroom drama. It's smart and trim, but I must respectfully lodge a dissent against the play's title -- and what many people, including Shanley himself apparently, believe the play is about. Audiences are supposedly torn over who is right, Father Flynn or his accuser. Our doubts are embodied in a flighty young nun, Sister James (Jessica Wiggers), who wants to believe the sympathetic priest though she fears Sister Aloysius is right. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius fight for her (and the audience's) faith.

But that's not how Doubt actually plays in the seats. I think audiences decide whether the child abuse charges are true fairly early on. We actually feel little doubt here -- recall what I said about how it's impossible to unlearn what we've learned. We may sympathize with Sister James' quandary (altough Wiggers plays her enough on the edge of hysteria that she loses quite a bit of that fellow feeling). But I don't think anyone really feels 'torn' between two different claims on the truth.

There is suspense in the play, but it's not over who is right. It's over who will win, over how they will win and what it will cost them. And what it may cost the Church. That's why Shanley's ending is disturbing - and why audiences in North Texas can grimly appreciate it. Sister Aloysius confesses her own doubts -- not over Flynn's guilt but over whether her Church is worth saving anymore, because what happens to Father Flynn clearly points to what happened to the Catholic Church in places like Dallas in the 1990s.

If you wish, you can hear me deliver the radio version of this review here

October 6, 2008 7:52 AM |



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