Preview: Doubt: A Parable

Emily Newton 19 June 2012

Doubt: A Parable

Corpus Playroom, 7pm, 19th-23th June

‘Doubt: A Parable’ by John Patrick Shanley is a tightly woven mystery and tense moral drama. Set in a Bronx church school in 1964, it takes its cues from the conflicts of church, state and race, as Principal Sister Aloysius indulges her suspicions regarding the welfare of St. Nicholas’s first black pupil. The story is best known under the guise of the 2008 Academy Award nominated film ‘Doubt’; indeed, despite its modest setting, the play is hardly short of accolades, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award. But what is the key to the success of this intensely psychological drama?

The director, Niall Wilson, is keen to emphasize the importance of the characters, as well as the setting. “The play’s heart is really rooted in questions of trust and reputation”, he explains enthusiastically. “Obviously, faith plays a part in the narrative, but Sister Aloysius’ religious identity is nowhere near as important as the picture Shanley draws of Aloysius the woman.”

“The character of Aloysius is a real gift of a part for an actress”, agrees Liane Grant, who is playing the iron-willed principal. “She is so ironically conflicted, and the script is incredibly textured and subtle”. Indeed, as I watch the rehearsal, in which Aloysius interrogates the impressionable young Sister James on the conduct of Flynn, she switches fluidly from sympathetic and heroic to frustratingly dogged. Her refusal to use a ball-point pen, like the progressive and popular Father Flynn, encapsulates her need for order and control in a shifting world.

Not being an actor or a director, I am amazed at how much detail goes into every element of Grant’s portrayal, and how much Wilson allows characterisation to lead his approach to the text. By questioning the actors on their respective character’s thoughts and motives behind every line, I watch as he allows them to really flesh out every aspect. “It’s all in there!” exclaims Victoria Rigby wonderingly, having been interrogated on Sister James’ past life. “It’s so easy to throw away a line as unimportant, but everything is linked together really intricately.” I can’t help but agree as I see their performances get noticeably fuller throughout the rehearsal.

The context of the play, however, is particularly important to the dynamic of the characters. “It really balances the idea of America in a period of enormous change with the real proximity and focus on the effects for the four characters”, Wilson adds. The decision to project footage of contemporary political speeches over the audience entrance and the opening address strengthens the contemporary political undertones of the play. “It helps the audience place the events prior to the action” he explains. The homily itself reflects upon the assassination of President Kennedy the year before and confronts the doubt and fear sparked by that event, acting as the catalyst for Sister Aloysius’ relentless pursuit of Father Flynn.

‘Doubt: A Parable’ is undoubtedly subtle and thought-provoking. Given its setting in a devout Catholic school, one would be forgiven for expecting dry ecclesiastical debate. However, the reality is a very human depiction of one woman’s determination to find the truth. The tension explored between faith and disbelief questions not only religion, but the foundations of friendship and trust.

Emily Newton