"Innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil," Sister Aloysius cautions her younger counterpart, Sister James. Both nuns teach at a Catholic school in the Bronx, and the year is 1964 - only a year after the country as a whole, through the assassination of President Kennedy, was dealt a shocking lesson in the loss of innocence.
But, in the world of these women and the popular young priest, Father Flynn, lines between good and evil, and between well-grounded suspicion and baseless accusation, are not so easily drawn. Is the hoops-shooting, laid-back young priest the kind of relatable role model the students at St. Nicholas need? Or is his closeness to the kids - particularly the school's first black student - the sign of something more sinister?
Playwright John Patrick Shanley's Doubt: A Parable, winner of both the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony award for best play, approaches the issue of clergy sexual abuse in an even-handed and gripping way. And, despite troubling subject matter, it's not without humor. Under the direction of Miranda McClenaghan, Strollers Theatre's production is brisk (about 75 minutes with no intermission) and anchored by an outstanding performance by Judy Kimball as Sister Aloysius, whose concerns about Father Flynn set the play in motion.
Kimball's nun may be steely and dour at times, but she also strives to be principled and shrewd. While she wields authority as the principal of St. Nicholas and can make young Sister James' face crumple during a withering assessment of her teaching, she's also powerless in some ways given church hierarchy. As Father Flynn harshly reminds her, "I'm not answerable to you." But, in reality, does Father Flynn have anything to answer for? Shanley's drama keeps us on shifting ground.
As audience members in the real world circa 2008 - not a fictional Bronx school circa 1964 - our perspective on these events is understandably skewed. We know that the clergy abuse scandal and its cover-up were real and ongoing. Yet we've got to keep in mind that Shanley's characters don't have the historical hindsight we do.
While Kimball's performance is the show's strongest and most multidimensional, the rest of the four-person cast holds its own. Kimball is convincing as a woman who has led a whole other life before becoming a nun; she was married to a man who died fighting in World War II. Where she is worldly and experienced, Sister James (Stacie Hanson) is guileless and impressionable. R. Peter Hunt, as Father Flynn, shifts ably between likable, accessible teacher and a man who may have something to hide.
Harsh stage lighting and occasional sound bleed-through from Mercury Players' production of The Full Monty (on the Bartell's other stage) were the only distractions in this memorable, high-caliber production, which proves that community theater doesn't have to shy away from challenging, contemporary plays.
Doubt: A Parable
Presented by Strollers Theatre at the Bartell Theatre, through Sept. 27