In arguably his strongest directing effort at Theatre AUM, Neil David Seibel's production of Doubt has its young actors interpreting John Patrick Shanley's script with a clarity and simplicity that respects the text's nuances, allows humor in its provocative subject matter, and intentionally leaves the audience questioning the outcome.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005 followed by a successful 2008 film, Doubt addresses the persistent issue of abusive Roman Catholic priests with a balance of positions that provokes post-show discussions and analyses that have no easy or conclusive answers.
Cliff Merritt's multi-leveled cruciform platform set is a strong metaphor, though odd staging at its extremes distances the audience at times. And a Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer is out of place in the distinctly Catholic setting.
The action takes place in 1964 at St. Nicholas School in the Bronx, NY, a school run with an iron hand by its principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier [Tina Neese], an ultra-conservative crusader for preserving moral, social, and educational traditions. When Sister James [Erica Johnson], an idealistic young teacher, innocently reveals to her superior that she is concerned about a student's behavior after he visited the rectory with Father Brendan Flynn [Mark Dasinger, Jr.], Sister Aloysius begins a crusade to "bring him down", having not a shred of hard evidence, but only the certainty of her conviction of the priest's sexual misconduct with Donald Muller, the first African-American student at the school who is never seen on stage, but whose presence is felt throughout.
Sister Aloysius's tactics run counter to the more compassionate Sister James, and Ms. Neese is not at all subtle in portraying her character's rigidity, stopping just short of making her a monster; a difficult role to pull off. -- As Sister James, Ms. Johnson finds a credible balance of obedience to the order of nuns, a genuine regret for putting the suspicions against Father Flynn in motion, and the dilemma of doing what is right in her belief that the priest is innocent.
Mr. Dasinger's depiction of Father Flynn as a likable counselor and role model for both students and parishioners makes him easily sympathetic, especially as contrasted with Ms. Neese's portrayal of Sister Aloysius who bullies everyone with an aggressiveness that allows no opposition, and it is clear that his sermons on "doubt" and "the evils of gossip" anticipate and are prompted by Sister Aloysius's strategies.
Even Sister Aloysius's interview with the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller [Allyson Lee] does not change her confrontational behavior, though the woman wants her to drop the issue and admits that her son is "that way" and suffers abuse from his father, relying on Father Flynn as a kind of surrogate.
Despite Father Flynn's claims of innocence, there is a suggestion of past misconduct, and though Sister Aloysius plays every card in her preoccupation with scandal, Shanley's script is inconclusive, and no one emerges intact -- Father Flynn's reputation is blemished, Sister Aloysius admits to falsifying some of her "evidence", Sister James is somewhat disillusioned, and Mrs. Muller leaves not knowing what is to happen to her son.
It would be easy to have a clear answer, to know whether Father Flynn is guilty as charged by Sister Aloysius, so it is a credit to the competent AUM actors that they treat their characters' convictions without budging from full commitment. And Mr. Seibel's even handed treatment, without flash or flourish, makes for a provocative evening at the theatre.