The Power of 'Doubt' Explored at Cotuit Center for the Arts

Bronwen Prosser (left), in the role of Sister James, gets a lesson on losing her innocence from Sister Aloysius, played by Cathy Smith.
ALAN TRUGMAN - Bronwen Prosser (left), in the role of Sister James, gets a lesson on losing her innocence from Sister Aloysius, played by Cathy Smith.

One has to wonder what playwright John Patrick Shanley knew about sexual misconduct among Catholic priests when he was a schoolboy in the 1960s, the period in which his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, Doubt: A Parable is set.

Taking place well before the scandals that disgraced and bankrupted churches across the nation were made public, the issue is all too familiar: could a priest, trusted and revered by an entire community, be capable of raping young boys?

Set in the austere Saint Nicholas School, the conflict at the core of the play is whether to believe the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (played by Cathy Smith of Falmouth), as she leads an investigation into her suspicions that the schoolteacher and basketball coach, Father Brendan Flynn (played by Richard Martin of North Falmouth), has engaged in inappropriate relations with his young charges.

A righteous cause

Sister Aloysius is one tough cookie, as she demonstrates to Sister James, a young teacher played by Bronwen Prosser of Woods Hole. While criticizing Sister James’s apparent passion for teaching 8th grade history and letting her students use "cartridge pens," Sister Aloysius quizzes the young nun on any unusual behavior she might have observed between Father Flynn and the boys in her class, particularly with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller.

If you go...

Doubt: A Parable

Cotuit Center for the Arts
4409 Falmouth Road (Rt. 28)
Cotuit

Performances are Thursday through Sunday from April 5 to April 22 at 8 PM, with an additional Sunday matinee at 4 PM.

Tickets are $22, $19 for seniors, $17 for members, and $15 for students. Special half-price discount for the Easter Sunday matinee!

Group rates are available for parties of 10 or more. Call 508-428-0669 or visit ArtsOnTheCape.org for tickets.

The audience will have the opportunity to chat with the director and cast members during an informal reception at the Cotuit Center’s cash bar after each performance.

Issues of patriarchy within the Catholic Church and societal racism emerge as obstacles preventing Sister Aloysius from reporting her suspicions to the monsignor. Lamenting her limited powers as a mere nun and school principal, Sister Aloysius comments that the hierarchy of the Church is set up to “protect the men and hinder me.”

With the reluctant aid of Sister James, the school principal hatches a plan to slyly confront Father Flynn in a meeting, ostensibly to discuss the school Christmas pageant. In a pivotal scene, the audience learns of Sister Aloysius’s resistance to reforms decreed by the Second Ecumenical Council—as well as the mortal sins of keeping long fingernails and putting sugar in one’s tea.

An argument over whether to include a “secular song” such as “Frosty the Snowman” in the play erupts into the real purpose of the meeting. As it surely has happened in real life, the priest indignantly denies Sister Aloysius’s charges and the indirect methods she used to lure him into her office. When pressed, his reasons for spending time alone with Donald sound reasonable, and Sister James is the first to express her relief that Father Flynn is innocent.

Is truth black & white?

But Sister Aloysius is not so sure. Dismissing Father Flynn’s story, she continues with her witch hunt, inviting Donald’s mother in for a chat. In a remarkable performance by first-time actress Brandy Power of Bourne, Ms. Muller’s demeanor shifts from nervous and deferential to that of a mother bear, determined to protect her son at any price.

As both characters point out in the scene, Donald’s issues “are not black and white.” When Sister Aloysius threatens to throw the boy out of school to rid herself of a possible scandal, his mother insists that the principal let him graduate to improve his chances of getting into a high school where he will not face beatings and ridicule.

As a black woman in 1960s America, Ms. Muller tells Sister Aloysius that she learned “you accept what you gotta accept and do some good with it.” She says, “You may think you’re doin’ good, but the world is a hard place. I don’t know that you and I are on the same side.”

Foiled in her plan to gain allies and evidence, Sister Aloysius presents Father Flynn with an ultimatum: resign from the parish or have the scandal exposed.

Choose your own conclusion

It takes tight direction and spot-on acting to carry an hour and a half play with just four actors. Director Joan Edstrom and her crew accomplish that goal impeccably, leaving the audience to ponder the issues while keeping the action flowing at a nice pace. One might wish for even more of a pause between scenes so that the dilemma could sink in more fully.

Sermons delivered in a slight Irish brogue by Father Flynn strike to the heart of the matter at just the right moments in the play. Whether your weekend includes a visit to a house of worship or not, these soliloquies will lead you to ponder the self-destructive power of faith and the irreparable damage of gossip well after the lights come up.

Thoughout the play, the audience’s faith in the characters is put to the test. But we’ve been warned early on by Father Flynn that “doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”

Those who like nice neat conclusions and special effects in theater will not be coddled by this play. Andrew Arnault’s appropriately sparse set design is brightened by an incredible stained glass window made especially for this production, as well as lighting design by David Fenn. The nuns’ habits and bonnets, made with painstaking attention to detail by Cindy Parker and Alan Trugman, are faithful to the era. Save for a lone crow call, the lack of sound design was perhaps a missed opportunity to include at least the idea of children, who are otherwise absent from the play.

Your own relationship with religion, and especially with the Catholic Church, will doubtlessly color your opinion of what takes place in this play. But whether you believe Father Flynn is guilty or innocent, there is no doubt that you will leave the theater weighing whether there is such a thing as the absolute truth, and whether reality matters at all when it comes to protecting one’s reputation.

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