No Doubt: Theatre Memphis Builds a Better Potboiler

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Certainty isn't knowing. It's the feeling of knowing. Doubt is similarly a feeling of knowing something's wrong. These are emotional conditions and when it comes to understanding the world  — particularly things that conflict with core belief —  they are equally useless.   As American physician Dr. Robert A. Burton writes in his excellent book On Being Certain, "Cognitive dissonance tends to resolve itself in favor of feeling over reason." Misplaced feelings of knowing routinely overpower the intellect and, to that end, audiences know no more at the end of Patrick Shanley's  Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt than they do at its beginning. Still, we feel like we know things. Or that we don't know things. And when the play's over and the “Rashomon Effect” takes hold, some of those feelings about things we do and don't know may approach the certainty of eyewitness. Tensions are expertly managed as the script toys with viewer bias, never providing enough clarity or perspective to really measure how fragile intuition can be. 

Father Flynn opens the show with a lyrical sermon pitting certainty against its double. Playing Devil's advocate, like a good progressive, he makes a case for doubt, describing it as a difficult condition that can cement the bonds between man and God as solidly as faith. The degree to which one engages with the rest of the play may depend on whether or not you just rolled your eyes.

Flynn, we soon discover, is a gay man. Wait... maybe he isn't a gay man. He is, however, suspected of being a child molester by a nun who's suspects everyone and everything. The young priest has allegedly entered into an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable 12-year-old African-American student — the first to attend the Catholic school where Flynn coaches basketball. Or maybe he's entered into a healthy relationship with a young man who has nowhere else to turn for fatherly advice. Okay, here's everything we know for sure about Father Flynn: He's a Catholic priest, coach and educator who takes a personal interest in his charges and who was once spotted touching another boy's arm in a way that made Sister Aloysius uncomfortable. What we may feel or project onto him at any given moment is another matter.
Michelle Miklosey, Ryan Kathman, and Christina Wellford Scott.
  • Michelle Miklosey, Ryan Kathman, and Christina Wellford Scott.

Sister Aloysius is the school's principal and the humorless yin to Father Flynn's good-natured yang. She's less conservative than anti-progressive, and firmly convinced that ball point pens are a clear sign of civilization's latest decline. Her nature is suspicious to the extreme. She's smart but unwittingly functions as a vessel for institutional racism as well as a vigilant safeguard for the heteronormativity that keeps her and her sisters in their predetermined places. Her gut tells her Flynn's guilty of something so she sets out to see the man undone. What follows is a mashup in the finest traditions of witch hunts and detective stories calling to mind Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, David Mamet's Oleanna, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, Misery by Stephen King, and Arthur Conan Doyle's as yet undiscovered novel Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Problematic Priest. Originality may not be this play's strong hand.

Theatre Memphis' Doubt is a moody potboiler, smartly imagined and tightly staged by Director Tony Isbell. Jeremy Fisher's understated lighting helps to focus audience attention and Jack Yates' set, built entirely of doors, feels deceptively sturdy while wrapping the production in a Borgesian sense of boundless possibility. For all of its many fine qualities, it's also out of balance. 

Shanley's script tasks the actor playing Father Flynn with the impossible. To borrow from Goethe, "We see only what we know," and, in what amounts to a public trial where the only evidence is inadmissible evidence, Flynn is called on to counter accusations by Sister Aloysius and audience bias built from true, widely told stories of a paternalistic church systematically protecting priests by covering up instances of child molestation. Flynn is easily offered up as a sacrificial lamb. It's not supposed to work that way. It doesn't have to and shouldn't. But judging from various accounts, it seems to happen with this play.

As Flynn, Ryan Kathman is a strong, soft-spoken and calming presence. Forward-thinking appears to come easy, though his character is also equipped with an appropriate amount of male privilege for 1964. And for his position in a church where women bear so much responsibility with no authority to speak of. But Kathman withers under Christina Welford Scott's gaze like a guilty schoolboy. In doing so he invites more than his share of the D-word when he might be better off deflecting it. It's a fair choice, but one that only works with similar chinks in his accusers' armor. 

Scott's on fire as Sister Aloysius. Her grounded, commanding presence allows her to bulldoze through any criticism or concerns regarding her various obsessions. Although we know the character is inclined toward suspicion with many eccentric views (and not above a little false witness), Scott projects moral authority that's more than a match for any actual authority. She grows to embody the kind of gruff "common sense" people respect reflexively, even though it's usually a wrongheaded expression of historic prejudice. In a play that encourages judgement based on feelings rather than knowledge, we simply feel her more. And knowing the things we can't automatically un-know coming into the theater, it's too easy to feel she's the already beaten underdog and hero of a completely different cautionary saga. 

Isbell's production of Doubt gets a lot right too, but it gets one thing absolutely right. No production of any play has ever shown so clearly how administrative crap can suck the joy of teaching right out of  the most enthusiastic young educators. At least none that I've ever seen. Michelle Miklosey turns in a strong performance as Sister James, whose confidence and positive outlook are relentlessly attacked as dangerous naïveté. Her facial expressions are subtle and priceless, especially as Sister Aloysius holds forth on the demonic nature of the popular Christmas song "Frosty the Snowman." Antoinette Harris is also convincing as Mrs. Muller, the alleged victim's mother, though her one powerfully-written scene with Sister Aloysius never really took off.

Mrs. Muller's scene makes me wish for another play telling the same story from her family's point of view. Her son lives in Hell and his only chance for a better life is rooted in his ability to get up and get out. She's aware of her son's "nature" and wonders if he might not want to be "caught." She's resolved that a kid who's endured what her kid's endured can handle anything through graduation in June. Her scene threatens to shatter the meaning of Aloysius's narrative with a context bomb but it does nothing to contradict the narrative itself. 

Doubt is set in the same year the Beatles came to America, which may be more important than it seems. The play's action is more directly informed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which sent America 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 starting to bud, and bedrock institutions of church, state, and short hair for boys were being questioned, as were the liberal-ish reforms of Vatican 2.0. This is the historical and political context that makes Doubt feel resonant in an era of tremendous mistrust and political divisiveness. It leaves audiences with the feeling that we know something— perhaps several conflicting somethings — while also leaving us unable to know anything at all. 


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