In the opening scene of Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn delivers a sermon with such confidence and zeal that we immediately like himquite the accomplishment given the uneasy undercurrent of the sermon's subject. In the realm of religion, uncertainty and crises of faith can come off as weakness, but Flynn is the kind of reassuring charismatic character that can put his flock at ease.
"Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty," he says from the pulpit. "What do you do when you're not sure?"
From the sermon onward, the issue of doubt surfaces in surprising and dark ways. The Montana Repertory Theatre's rendition of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitizer- and Tony-award winning parable tackles that story head onwith varying degrees of successin a four-person, one-act production, directed by Greg Johnson, about the collateral damage that can accompany both sides of an accusation.
The suspicions here are harbored by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Suzy Hunt), the stern principal of St. Nicholas Catholic School in the Bronx, circa 1964, who is so old-fashioned that she rails more than once about the use of ballpoint pens. We learn early on in a meeting with the young and naïve eighth grade teacher Sister James (Caitlin McRae) that Sister Aloysius is concerned about the welfare of Donald Muller, one of Sister James's students.
Though she's not specific, it's evident the concerns regard interactions between Father Flynn (Brendan Shanahan) and Muller, who happens to be the school's first African-American student. Aloysius is fishing for confirmation of those suspicions in her discussion with the younger nun, who is reluctant to say too much for fear of falsely incriminating the affable priest.
Everyone here is in a bad spot, including of course Father Flynn, who reacts defiantly when confronted by the older nun. Sister James awkwardly observes the meeting, unsure of who to believe.
There's a lot to like here. The Montana Rep's interpretation is more focused and engaging than the 2008 film adaptation of Doubt starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but there's also a curious incongruity that disrupts the tone and fails to provide the level of intensity this fascinating story deserves.
We can trace the problems to that aforementioned first scenethe sermon delivered with such energy by Shanahan, who looks like a young Robert De Niro. Our hopes are raised and we expect the rest of the play to sustain that same emotional punch. Instead, we get a performance that occasionally goes foror accidentally achieveslaughs in the strangest of places. Given this is a play about suspicions of child sexual abuse, that makes for some really uncomfortable moments.
Take the scene where Sister Aloysius talks to the younger nun about her suspicions. It's a good scene, but like others it suffers from glibly delivered lines by Hunt, who plays up the old shrew angle more than necessary. Her reproachful words to Sister James should make us cringe with their seriousnessafter all, she's playing a dangerous game with her convictions and the Father's career and life. Instead, it's almost sitcom-esque, where we and the younger nun are in on the joke that the older nun is just a batty lady at whom we should laugh and roll our eyes.
As the young, innocent nun, UM student McRae maintains a fresh and earnest energy central to the character throughout the show. She's the only one of the cast members who never stumbled over a line during the opening night performance I attended. But her responses to the sister's suspicions are more often played in a rapid and flustered manner, which doesn't help in building the suspense surrounding the ultimate decision about the Father's guilt.
As that targeted priest, Shanahan is consistent throughout, though he's at his best in the two scenes when he's on stage by himself. He has an easy and friendly rapport with the audience, but because he could also be guilty, his presence is equally creepy and disturbing.
Likewise, Sarina Hart is memorable in her one scene as Mrs. Muller, called into the school by Sister Aloysius to discuss her troubled son's situation. We feel her desperation as a mother who seems willing to overlook the abuse of her son so as long as it means he will graduate in the spring.
The set is well-constructed but spare, successfully allowing the focus to be on the dialogue. A few clever props and background window projections provide quick and unobtrusive changes of location. The scene moves several times from an office to a garden with ease.
UM's Doubt is entertaining. It just too often fails to maintain the anxiety and tension it should. That slow loss of emotion results in a particularly impotent closing scene that left me wishing for more.
Montana Rep's Doubt continues at the Montana Theatre in the PARTV Center Thu., Jan. 26–Sat., Jan. 28; Tue., Jan. 31–Thu., Feb. 2, and Sat., Feb. 4, nightly at 7:30 PM, plus a Sat., Jan. 28, matinee at 2 PM. $20 Go to montanarep.org or call 243-4581.