Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
This cautionary tale about the impact of gossip is subtitled "a Parable" as it shows two sides to a story set in 1964 at a parochial school in the Bronx. After head principal Sister Aloysius learns from novice Sister James that the charismatic Father Flynn has had private meetings and conversations with a young student named Donald Miller, she is convinced that he is molesting Donald. Yet Flynn claims he has done nothing wrong and is only protecting the boy, as Miller is the sole African-American student at the school and is isolated due to his race. Aloysius is also a traditionalist, set in her ways, and opposes Flynn's more secular view of Catholicism. With just the right amount of information dispersed over the 90-minute play, Shanley allows the audience to determine which side they believe is correct. But Shanley's script will most likely have you not only changing your mind more than once during the show, but also discussing and debating it on your ride home as well.
Mesa Encore Theatre has found an exceptionally gifted cast to play the four parts in the play, led by Shari Watts as Sister Aloysius. The insinuations of Flynn's behavior are delivered with a steely determination. While some of Aloysius' lines are comical, based on how far-fetched many of her beliefs are (for example, that "Frosty the Snow Man" is a pagan song dealing with magic or that ball point pens shouldn't be allowed), Watts never milks those moments for laughs. She simply shows us how Aloysius' firm, steadfast beliefs are possibly behind not only her stilted view of the world but also her unrelenting determination to take Flynn down, even if she has no actual proof of her accusations. But what if she is right? Watts perfectly shows us how Aloysius is trying to protect the children while also making us realize that perhaps she is really just trying to protect her own beliefs in the Catholic religion. This is the fourth show I've seen Watts in over the past 18 months and she never fails to portray the realism behind the character. Her Aloysius is perfect.
Flynn is a more sympathetic character, and Marshall Glass' charisma, good looks and measured, easy delivery of Flynn's lines allows us, at first, to side with him. But once certain events unfold, and Flynn battles with Aloysius, we start to see the cracks beneath the man and start to doubt our opinions. Glass' ability to win us over, numerous times throughout the play, works perfectly in how Shanley has crafted his play as a battle, with the audience constantly switching from side to side. Like Watts, Glass is delivering an excellent performance.
In the smaller role of Sister James, Jamie Hendricks has the appropriate mousy disposition of the young nun, who is just trying to do what's right for her students while hoping to befriend and inspire them as well. James serves as the character that represents the audience, changing her beliefs as to who is right throughout the play, and Hendricks does a nice job in the part. As Mrs. Muller, Anne-Lise Koyabe is delivering a heartbreaking take on this troubled mother. Koyabe has the exact demeanor that you'd believe the mother of the only black child in the school would have when being called to the principal's office to talk about her son. The soft, measured delivery of her lines shows us the tentative nature of this woman, yet when confronted with the facts we quickly see the determination in the character as well.
Kent Burnham has directed a production that will have you pondering the ideas of truth and consequences. He has a solid understanding of the material and elicits not only excellent performances from his cast but also an overall winning production. Creative elements are fairly bare bones, with a minimal set design by Jason Walz and lighting from Daniel Sullivan. But the low budget aspects of the designs never detract from the well-written script and well-acted production. Richard Mickey Courtney's costume, hair, and make-up designs are superb in their period appropriateness.
"What do you do when you are not sure?" is a question that Flynn poses in his first sermon in the play. It is something we can all take as a lesson when considering a subject that isn't cut and dried, with an answer that is beyond the shadow of a doubt. Mesa Encore Theatre's Doubt smolders, and Shanley's philosophical battle of the wills is not to be missed.
Doubt runs through from June 14th, 2015, with performances at the Mesa Encore Theatre's Black Box on Brown Theatre. To buy tickets or for information visit mesaencoretheatre.com.
Directed by Kent Burnham