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Unpleasantness

Doubt makes its regional premiere.

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Voltaire said it best when he wrote, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd." Doubt is the quarrelsome traveling companion of both caution and inquiry, while certainty, as recent events might suggest, can turn a nation of normally decent people into reckless cheerleaders for unnecessary war.

Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt, currently on stage at Playhouse on the Square, begins with a lyrical sermon weighing the respective values of certainty and skepticism. Framed by a stained-glass window, Father Flynn, a progressive Catholic priest (played by a tougher-than-usual Michael Gravois), makes the case that doubt can create a bond between man and God that is as powerful and satisfying as unswerving faith. It's this sermon in praise of uncertainty that makes the conservative Sister Aloysius (flintily played by Ann Marie Hall) certain that Father Flynn likes to bugger little boys.

Doubt is one of the most celebrated plays in recent memory — and one of the most unoriginal. It's Arthur Miller's The Crucible writ small. It's a watered-down version of David Mamet's Oleanna. It's a sympathetic revision of Christopher Durang's scathing satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. It's a 90-minute witch hunt that leaves audiences wondering if, in this particular circumstance, the hunter wasn't fully justified. It's a decent potboiler dressed up to resemble something a little more serious. Good, not great.

After a disappointing performance as Bananas in Theater Memphis' House of Blue Leaves, Hall is back in top form. Her withering glances can make your knuckles throb like they'd just been slapped with a ruler. Hall's powerful and powerfully frustrating performance underscores her unlikable character's one mitigating delimma: As a female working in the patriarchal Catholic school system, she has tremendous responsibilities that must be executed in the absence of any meaningful authority. The near futility of Sister Aloysius' struggle against an old-boy system with a history of protecting pedophiles makes her disregard for substantial proof of wrongdoing nearly tolerable. And in the end, when she breaks down and confesses that she too is riddled with doubt, it's clear she's talking not about herself but about the church and possibly God.

Doubt works best when the audience is left to wonder whether or not Father Flynn is a predator or a victim. Unfortunately, that's not the case at Playhouse on the Square. Director Jerry Chipman, who easily handled the moral ambiguities of How I Learned To Drive, has been less successful with Doubt. Under his guidance, Father Flynn has evolved into a creature with two heads — one crowned in compassion, the other in indignation. His guilt is certain enough to undo the play's suspense, turning what could be a compelling mystery into Erin Brockovich in a habit.

Doubt is set in 1964, and much of the play's action is informed by the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an event that sent Americans spiraling into a national identity crisis. The civil rights movement was coming to a full boil, threatening social norms in regard to ethnicity, economic conditions, and gender roles. The youth movement that flowered in the "Summer of Love" and wilted by the end of the decade was just beginning to bud, and bedrock institutions of church, state, and short hair for boys were being questioned, as were the intentions of anyone over 30.

Even rock-and-roll, a sound as American as Elvis, had been hijacked by a band of mop-topped Brits whose questionable morals were sure to infect, weaken, and ultimately destroy the national character.

The Catholic Church, looking to weather the storm of social change, was beginning to adopt a comparatively liberal agenda. This is the historical and political context that makes Doubt so potentially resonant in post-9/11 America. But this Doubt is cursed with the kind of certainty that boarders on intoxication. It plays out like an expression of irrational suburban fears that everyone not actively hunting child molesters is either a child molester or a liberal enabler.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day, or so the cliché goes. And so it is with Sister Aloysius, whose tirade against the wicked pagan imagery found in the Christmas song "Frosty the Snowman" is richly comical. The unfortunate suggestion, however, is that there is a real method to the good sister's madness.

At Playhouse on the Square through October 21st

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