John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is frighteningly simple in its complexity. With four characters, Shanley dissects a basic question of truth with the kind of emotional precision that reveals the deeper inner complexity of human reality. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre stages a thoroughly satisfying production of the drama this month from the stage of the Broadway Theatre Center.
It’s a Big Place. Lots of Space
It’s hard to miss the immensity of the set. We’re looking at a huge church meant to represent...in a way...all of Catholicism. The Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre is big and spacious without feeling overwhelming the way the larger venues in town do. Scenic Designer Steve Barnes manages to make it look positively immense, though. Huge stretches of empty space are contrasted against massive, ominous stretches of brick which seem to encompass everything. There’s a massive stained glass in the background.
There’s a delicate calculus at work between the cast, the set and all that empty space. It’s difficult to define quite why it works, but director C. Michael Wright has managed to find a way to make the drama of a few people seem every bit as big and powerful as the church itself. The right kind of blocking goes a long way here, but there’s something more at work and it has to do with the dynamic of the ensemble.
Father Brendan Flynn: Balanced Mystery
The Eastern New England accent is a really, really difficult one to nail down. Len too heavily on it and it sounds like you’re doing a weak impersonation of JFK. Lean too faraway from it and it sounds totally indistinct. Dialect Coach Raeleen McMillion and Marcus Truschinski have found the perfect voice for Father Brendan Flynn: a man of authority who is suspected of inappropriate relations with a young boy. There’s a mystery about the character from the moment we see him onstage. Truschinski cleverly delivers the casual day-to-day mystery of Father Flynn. There’s never anything overtly sinister in his interactions.
Truschinski allows the events of the drama to define the mystery within the character rather than attempting to over-render the warmth of his kindness or the coldness of his authority. The first time I saw Doubt, it was with the Rep just over ten years ago. Brian Vaughn played Father Flynn with a nice-guy charisma that was strong enough to wash away much of the mystery. To see Vaughn in the role, you’d just sort of...assume that Flynn didn’t do anything wrong. With Truschinski, there’s a delicate balance in the background of the character that keeps his true nature a truly fascinating mystery.
The Nuns in the Shadows
Colleen Madden and April Paul play Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Sister James-a couple of nuns at the church who suspect Father Flynn of impropriety. Reference to the progression of authority in the Catholic church throughout the play. The chain of authority seems to permeate every breath and heartbeat of the drama. Sister James is a young nun who answers to Sister Aloysius who serves the church far below Father Flynn. None of the three perfectly follow this authority, however. They respect it, but they don’t perfectly conform to it. Each of the three has a different reason for feeling uncomfortable with it, but they must all respect that it’s there. You could imagine this would be a really, really difficult dynamic to bring across onstage given only 90 minutes’ time. C. Michael Wright and company do an excellent job of bringing the specifics of this complexity to the stage in an approach which seems to start with the nuns.
Madden and Paul tread delicately around each other as two different people with two different levels of authority. Madden is sternly courageous as an elder educator determined to prove Flynn’s guilt. As Sister James, April Paul wields a heroic sense of compassion as the younger nun who has a passion for teaching. Both act with the best of intentions. Each acts on these intentions in her own way. The contrast between them draws them together in a search for the truth about what happened between Father Flynn and one of the choirboys.
Malkia Stampley rounds out the cast in a brief but powerful appearance as Mrs. Muller--the mother of the boy Father Flynn is suspected of having been involved in inappropriate relations with. Sister Aloysius invites her in to the office to question her about her son. Things get complicated. Mrs. Muller is a very strong African American woman dealing with life as a marginalized US citizen. (The drama is set in Autumn of 1964 just a few months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. The ink was still dry. There was a lot of work to be done there still is...) Stampley makes quite an impression. She doesn’t hold much authority, but she is able to respectfully challenge the notions of a very established nun in one of the drama’s most powerful scenes.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Doubt runs though Apr. 29 at the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit Milwaukee Chamber online.