Doubt - A Parable

Decadent Theatre Co, Town Hall Theatre and Everyman Palace Theatre present 'Doubt - A Parable' by John Patrick Shanley. Photo: Jane Talbot

Decadent Theatre Co, Town Hall Theatre and Everyman Palace Theatre present 'Doubt - A Parable' by John Patrick Shanley. Photo: Jane Talbot

Decadent Theatre Co, Town Hall Theatre and Everyman Palace Theatre present 'Doubt - A Parable' by John Patrick Shanley. Photo: Jane Talbot

Decadent Theatre Co, Town Hall Theatre and Everyman Palace Theatre present 'Doubt - A Parable' by John Patrick Shanley. Photo: Jane Talbot

“Truth makes for a bad sermon.” So says Father Flynn, the progressive and controversial priest at the heart of John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 parable play. Flynn is of course arguing that the power of a parable to succinctly teach a lesson far exceeds the illustrative potentials of the messy reality we find ourselves mired in on a daily basis. That Shanley’s play is itself an illustrative fiction seems to validate in part Flynn’s point. While this taut drama effectively accesses in a matter of ninety minutes the painful uncertainties that have resulted from the Church’s sex abuse scandals, it cannot possibly encompass in total the devastating realities that have shaken a centuries-old power structure right to its core. Nonetheless, Shanley’s is a sensitive and considered script, here given a solid staging by Galway’s Decadent Theatre Company.

Interestingly, the play is set in the Bronx in 1964, right in the midst of Vatican II as the Catholic Church attempts to reconcile its fraught relationship with the modern world. Father Flynn is introduced as a forward-thinking parish priest, viewing himself as at the forefront of the Church’s attempt to loosen its more conservative strictures, a stance which puts him immediately at odds with the principal of the parish’s school, Sister Aloysius. Sr. Aloysius sees it as the duty of the clergy to remain separate from laypeople, while Flynn argues for a more porous boundary between congregants and those who preach to them. Flynn even goes so far as to suggest that the secular song ‘Frosty the Snowman’ be included in the school’s Christmas pageant, a move Sr. Aloysius decries as very nearly blasphemous. But their conflict finds a more unsettling resonance when Sr. Aloysius suspects Flynn of engaging in an improper physical relationship with the school’s first black pupil, Donald Muller. Without solid proof and alienated from an all-male hierarchy that condescendingly demands her obedience, Sr. Aloysius is forced to pursue her suspicions alone, at the risk of her losing position and souring her mentorship of a young, impressionable nun, Sister James.

Director Andrew Flynn and his cast embrace the ambiguity of Sr. Aloysius’ accusations deftly, doing well to let the audience be the final arbiter of Fr. Flynn’s guilt. Diarmuid de Faoite’s Father Flynn is skillfully played as a compassionate man of the cloth, eager to relate to the boys under his charge. His two sermons that are interspersed through the play work on the audience as wise, genuine and reasoned appeals for common sense and kindness. But de Faoite also colours Flynn with rare moments of uneasy manipulation, as he works to gain the trust and confidence of the naïve Sister James, sensitively drawn by Seona Tully. Their scene in the rectory garden, after Sr. Aloysius makes her accusations known to Flynn, hovers uncomfortably between the states of tender commiseration and unscrupulous emotional manipulation, a testament to director Flynn’s detailed direction and his actors’ committed performances.

Bríd Ní Neachtain has more difficulty with her portrayal of the cold and conservative Sister Aloysius, however. Certainly Shanley hasn’t made her job easy. Given her ornery behaviour, a surface reading of the character could immediately mark the old nun as merely a hardened, intransigent crone. But Shanley offers several opportunities for an actor to access the potential depth of the woman’s humanity, as when she meets with Donald Muller’s mother (a solid and compelling Jacqueline Boatswain) to express her concerns about Donald’s relationship with Flynn. Under Andrew Flynn's direction, Ní Neachtain isn’t necessarily indifferent to Sr. Aloysius’s emotional blindspots, but the insistent nasality of her voice (a quality which at times is picked up by the other actors in their attempt to take on a proper Bronx accent), matched with the unwavering hardness of her portrayal, makes it difficult to sympathise with her. Only in her final confrontation with Fr. Flynn do we see the actor’s manufactured façade fall as Ní Neachtain allows Sr. Aloysius a passion and depth that had, up to this point, barely been hinted at in her performance.

Owen Mac Cárthaigh’s set, a towering structure of fogged glass with a massive gold cross inlaid at its centre, is impressively conceived but overpowers the intimacy of the scenes taking place before it. Sinéad McKenna’s lighting plays off Mac Cárthaigh’s setting effectively, while creating intimate spaces for scenes to unfold in. Carl Kennedy’s incidental music, while accomplished, does wear a bit, calling to mind action sequences from a Dan Brown thriller rather than a tense, focused drama. This aside, director Flynn and his ensemble deliver a commendable production of a finely wrought play.

Jesse Weaver

  • Review
  • Theatre

Doubt - A Parable by John Patrick Shanley

21 Feb - 3 March, 2012

Produced by Town Hall Theatre, Decadent Theatre Company and Everyman Palace Theatre
In Everyman Palace Theatre

Directed by Andrew Flynn

Design: Owen Mac Cárthaigh

Lighting Design: Sinéad McKenna

With: Diarmuid de Faoite, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Seona Tully, Jacqueline Boatswain.