John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, A Parable, has earned the rare honor of taking home the trifecta of awards: the Tony, the Academy Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Chances are you've seen the film starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but if you have not seen it live on stage - or even if you have - you should see Lakewood Playhouse's stirring production.
For starters, Shanley's script is as tightly written and as full of intelligent insights and surprises as anything you're likely to see on stage, and Erin Manza Chanfrau's set design is outstanding. It is comfortable and attractive with three scenes set at an angle to make for easy viewing from any seat in the house, where there is seating on three sides. No set changes are required, so there is no distraction and no waiting between scenes. There is the high alter in a Catholic church, the principal's office in the school next door to the church, and the garden bench between the two. On the back wall are painted stained glass windows. The height of the alter lends majesty when Father Brendan Flynn (Blake R. York) ascends it to preach, which is how the play opens.
With quiet dignity, the priest ascends the alter and preaches a homily about doubt, saying it is all right to not know, that everyone must wrestle with doubt. Thus, he announces the theme that asserts itself throughout the play.
The school principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Connie Murray), suspects Father Flynn of inappropriate behavior with a student who is talked about but who never appears in the play. He is the first and only black student in the newly integrated school. She questions Sister James (Kait Mahoney), a young and innocent teacher, about the relationship between the priest and the boy. Sister James believes in Father Flynn. The boy's mother (Diane Johnson in a single but powerful and surprising scene) comes to school at the invitation of Sister Aloysius, who is now more convinced than ever that Father Flynn is carrying on relations with the boy. Anything more said about the confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller would be a spoiler.
Finally, Sister Aloysius confronts Father Flynn, which he, of course, denies.
York underplays the role of Father Flynn. He portrays him in a manner that invites the audience to like and trust him - as gentle, kind and self-assured, but with a tightly controlled underlying tension. From the beginning one wants to believe in him.
Murray plays Sister Aloysius as cold and calculating, and so convinced she is right about her suspicions that it makes the audience suspect she is out to get Father Flynn, regardless of where or not he is guilty.
The doubt stated in the title and in the priest's opening sermon turns out to be about the moral character of each of the people in the story. Is there a power struggle going on between the priest and the principal? Is his loving demeanor a mask? No clear answers are given; the audience is left to puzzle it out for themselves, as the central mystery is not only Father Flynn's guilt or innocence, but the motives and morality of each character in the play, not just Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, but to a lesser degree Sister James and Mrs. Muller.
Each of the four actors does an outstanding job of realistically portraying the unique personalities of these four divergent characters.
Doubt was originally written to be performed not as a one-act but as a full-length play. It is my understanding that it is often broken into two acts, but Lakewood Playhouse's managing artistic director John Munn said he and director Victoria Webb decided to run it as originally written, for which I applaud them. Breaking up the action for an intermission would have been damaging to the dramatic thrust. I was thoroughly engaged from the moment York walked on stage and ascended the alter, and I think an intermission would have taken the audience out of the action and lessened the dramatic impact.
The play runs about an hour and a half. It is intense, emotionally demanding, and intellectually challenging. There is nothing light and playful about Doubt. It is heavy drama of the most intense sort, and beautifully produced.
Doubt, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 12, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, $15, 253.588.0042, lakewoodplayhouse.org