Photo by Craig SchwartzFor a moment I thought I had wandered into the wrong theater last week. I’d come to the Pasadena Playhouse to see Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s play about a priest accused of child molesting, but what I was watching resembled one of those classy horror movies the British used to make, the kind where agnostic bureaucrats argue with men of faith about sinister mysteries. (“And I put it to you, vicar, the children aren’t human.”) Everything from set designer Gary L. Wissman’s withered rectory garden to Jeremy Pivnick’s moody lighting and Steven Cahill’s whispery sound effects brings the viewer to the edge of dread. And on the other side of that edge stands Linda Hunt as the mirthless principal of a Bronx parochial school. “Boys are made of tar, tar paper and dirt,” Sister Aloysius informs a newcomer to the school — a line that, coming from Hunt’s sepulchral mouth, sounds less like a feminist critique than a practical recipe for voodoo-doll making. The diminutive sister’s grim, Hibernian Catholicism unmistakably marks her as a card-carrying exorcist rather than another caricature from the large sorority of comically deranged stage nuns. The time is 1964 — the liberal Pope John and the Catholic President John Kennedy are dead, and the roller coaster of American history is about to rocket up to (or plunge into) “the Sixties” proper. That dawning era of experiment and change is personified by the studly yet sensitive figure of Father Flynn (Jonathan Cake), St. Nicholas’ eloquent, charismatic pastor. “Doubt can be as powerful as certainty,” the youthful Father Flynn tells his parishioners during one sermon. Yet doubt is not one of the vows Sister Aloysius has taken. Every lockjawed sentence she utters, every half-repressed gesture she makes, belongs to someone with rigid views and arthritic body language. Her opinions flow freely when she lectures a young teacher, Sister James (Mandy Freund), who, to Sister Aloysius, displays an alarming enthusiasm for her students, not to mention a love of art and history. “Do not idealize Franklin Roosevelt,” she instructs Sister James in the principal’s office, as though she were equating FDR with Martin Luther. Shanley’s conservative nun, however, is no cloistered hysteric or Magdalene laundry turnkey, but a widow who took holy orders in middle age and whose ideas are not necessarily the prejudices of an unworldly crank. One thing she knows, apparently, is that Father Flynn is not right. His popularity with parishioners may suggest Bing Crosby in Going My Way, but Sister Aloysius questions just which way Father Flynn is going. Something about his rapport with boys — his easy physicality in gym class and the Kool-Aid–and–cookies bull sessions he conducts with them in the rectory — deeply troubles her. She tells the idealistic, virginal Sister James to keep an eye on the priest, and sure enough, the young nun returns with disconcerting news — an eighth-grade boy returned to her classroom from a visit to Father Flynn upset and smelling of alcohol. When confronted, Father Flynn denies the dark implications of the two nuns’ questions about his rectory rendezvous and later gets hot under the collar when Sister Aloysius insinuates that he abused the boy. The matter is complicated by the fact that the kid is also the school’s sole black student and in dire need of the pastor’s protection. Still, while he reminds Sister Aloysius of his administrative authority, Father Flynn stops short of pulling rank on the old nun and having her removed from her position. For a while we don’t know whom to trust. Perhaps, to throw us off balance, Shanley has made Father Flynn a little too likable, or Sister Aloysius too crabby. (He counsels boys, suggestively, to “shift your weight and move your hips” when shooting from the foul line in basketball; she suffers a martyr’s agony every time someone uses a ballpoint instead of a fountain pen.) We search for signs in their war for Sister James’ allegiance, but the young woman proves too flexible to reveal the playwright’s intentions. It’s not until a final reckoning between the two antagonists that we glimpse the story’s drift. One of my perennial New Year’s resolutions is to enjoy a John Patrick Shanley play. As hard as I try, though, I find his work, like the sugar cubes Sister Aloysius keeps in her desk drawer, easier to give up for Lent than to swallow. I’ve endured the lug nuttiness of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, the sitcom banter of Psychopathia Sexualis and the glib insights of Four Dogs and a Bone. Doubt, however, is a work of narrative carpentry, a tightly joined thriller that plays, not the least, on the historical predicament of nuns at the moment of the play’s action. There was a time when sexual child abuse was never spoken of in the national conversation and rarely even in private. Today it’s all you hear, from drive-time talk programs to TV cop shows. Ever subordinate to the whims and orders of priests, nuns in 1964 could not, however, even in the liberating aftermath of Vatican II, publicly level the kind of charges that Sister Aloysius privately aims against Father Flynn, let alone set in motion procedures to have a priest removed and punished. This forces her to rely solely on instinct and psychological warfare. Part of Shanley’s skill is that he does not make it easy for audiences to choose sides — both nun and priest have their charms and questionable affectations, and it’s very easy to picture the play ending with the morality of either emerging less “doubtful” than the other. These writerly strategies are fortified onstage in director Claudia Weill’s West Coast premiere. Hunt is completely captivating and in command of her character’s lonely role, veering between a stern mentor and a malicious witch-hunter. Cake’s embattled priest is a roguishly winning figure, endowed with a physical authority that slyly hints of danger while also embodying the new decade’s candor and inquisitiveness. (He somehow manages to wear his priestly garb as smartly as a Nehru jacket.) Freund’s Sister James, too, does well in her somewhat underdeveloped role, and Patrice Pitman Quinn turns in a brief but head-turning performance as the allegedly abused boy’s mother. In the space of a few moments, Quinn’s character, painfully aware of her precarious position in the otherwise all-white school, moves from graceful deference to quiet defiance to an almost feral plea for tolerance — not for her son’s skin color but for his nascent homosexuality and an understanding that attending St. Nicholas is the only thing that can protect him along his path from mean streets to college. Weill directs this 90-minute play with judicious emotional neutrality but not with moral indifference, and we never forget that terrible consequences lie in the balance of each scene. She gets strong support from her design team, including Alex Jaeger’s costumes — a church story might not sound like a promising runway for stage fashion, but Quinn’s tailored suit almost hurts our eyes after they’ve become used to the anemic hue of Sister Aloysius’ office, while the nuns’ witchy Sister of Charity habits underscore the story’s dark, secretive undertow. By the end of this claustrophobic fable, when the verdict on Father Flynn comes in, there’s no cheap catharsis, only troubling questions about what constitutes a greater good. Sitting in the theater, we may recall the old school-yard nun joke, What’s black and white and black and white and black and white? Even if we’ve forgotten the answer, after leaving Shanley’s mystery play we know one thing — it’s not the truth. DOUBT | By JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY | At Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. | Through April 10 | (626) 356-7529

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