This month The Company of Strangers stages its last show until 2021. The yearlong hiatus will involve fundraising and an awareness campaign for the organization. A progressive and unique Christian theatre company like Company of Strangers could not choose a better drama to go into the hiatus with than John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable. The complex allegory on faith, certainty, uncertainty and so much more is a very clever showcase for the kind of show that Company of Strangers does so well. Written by Shanley to be both deliberately ambiguous and heartbreakingly explicit, the drama is an exceedingly clever look at the nature of the unknown. This is the fourth local production of the drama that in the past decade or so. This production stands as one of the more memorable.
Mark Staniszewski carries a smooth, soulful compassion about him in the role of Father Flynn: a young priest in Boston in the 1960s with a progressive view of the church. As expressive with his hands as he is with a sometimes songlike voice, there's graceful poeticism about Steniszewski's performance that can feel pleasantly unreal at times. Flynn’s progressiveness clashes against the staunch conservatism of the principal of the church’s school, Sister Aloysius. Mary Buchel brings one of her most impressive performances to the stage in the role of the stalwart traditionalist Sister Aloysius. There’s a subtle twinge of Boston regional accent in her voice that gives the play a firm setting. Buchel is admirably resolute in her performance as Aloysius deals with the younger, far less experienced Sister James (played by Alexa Laur.) There are stiff moments that occasionally stutter through the performance. Key points in the play feel more than a little artificial, but they are far outshone by the passion that has been brought out in the script. Throughout there's an amplified sense of drama about the staging that isn't as earthbound as any production I've seen before. At it's best, Company of Strangers' staging almost feels operatic.
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is set during a very conservative time. The subtlety of the politics written in the script is traditionally played onstage with a very conservative sensibility. In every production I've seen before, the overwhelming authority of the Catholic Church during the early 1960’s has beeb played with a characteristically conservative reserve, allowing even thew quietest whispers to become deafening as decorum breaks down. Overtly expressed emotion wouldn't have been indigenous to the conservative formality of the Catholic church that Shanley is delivering in the script. Every other production I've seen conforms to that ideal. Director Jessica L. Sosniski takes the production in a more aggressively passionate direction than I’d ever seen before. I’ve never seen anger and passion combust onstage in a production of Doubt the way that it does here. There are moments where this clearly doesn't work with the production, but there are just as many moments where it's positively breathtaking. In the best moments, the oppressive conservative atmosphere of the era boils away in great intensity. This DOES compromise the stern conservatism that Shanley is rendering in the script, but it makes for quite a powerful performance when it works. It’s not a standard read of the mood and tone of the play, but Sosniski’s willingness to allow passionate amplification of the drama gives it added impact.
Nowhere is the power of passion in this production more evident than in the performance of Tina Nixon as Mrs. Muller—mother of the young boy Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of having inappropriate relations with. Nixon isn’t given a whole lot of time to make her mark as she’s only present in a single scene, but her passionate delivery of Mrs. Mueller’s plight feels suitably overwhelming and crushingly organic. Given the wrong tilt, Nixon’s passion might have come across as uncomfortably exaggerated, but the actress has such a firm grasp of the motivation underlying the character that keeps even the most intense emotions grounded in a gritty realism.
The Company of Strangers’ production of Doubt: A Parable runs through Sep. 14 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit A Company of Strangers online.
Those interested in an alternative take on one of the most produced modern plays in greater Milwaukee over the course of the past decade might be interested to know that a completely different production of the play is being staged for one weekend only in Elm Grove next week as the Sunset Playhouse stages a production of Doubt that is directed by Becky Spice September 12- 14.
It's a 90-minute play. This coming Friday night The Company of Strangers performances starts at 7:00 pm. The Sunset Playhouse performances start at 7:30 pm. As Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius' conflict asserts itself in Milwaukee, an entirely different Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius begin their journey into conflict on a slightly bigger stage in Elm Grove.