Theater Review – Doubt by John Patrick Shanley at Burlington County Footlighters

Due to the troubling subject matter of this play, I had doubts I’d enjoy it. The presentation by the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters this fall, put my doubts to rest. They performed a somber reading of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Doubt.

Have I overdone the whole “doubt” thing, yet? FULL DISCLOSURE: if you think so, you shouldn’t keep reading this review.

When I entered the theater I started to genuflect. The altar, stained glass and podium gave the true ambiance of a church. The addition of the red light above the latter showed fantastic attention to detail on the part of the set designer (Jim Frazier). When Father Flynn (Kevin Walters) approached the podium and delivered his sermon on “doubt” I suspected I was not in the presence of holiness…or was I?

The playbill read that Mr. Walters “regards Doubt as one of the finest plays ever written.” Father Flynn is certainly the most challenging dramatic role I’ve encountered. Theatergoers need to view him as someone unjustly accused of a heinous action. They also need to think him an unrepentant pedophile. Not an easy character for an actor to play. It requires him to walk a fine line in order to be convincing on both counts. Through his subtle vocal inflections Mr. Walters did so splendidly. At the end of the performance I wanted to have a beer with him. At the same time I would’ve been a little leery of letting him watch my kids. Bravo on such a phenomenal acting performance.

I enjoyed watching Donne Petito bring Sister Aloysius Beauvier’s character to life. This performer conveyed the essence of an ultra-conservative, inflexible and doctrinaire ideologue. (I should point out that the playwright set this drama in 1964 at a Bronx Catholic grammar school. The action didn’t take place in Washington, D. C. or the hustings somewhere south of New England.) The dark tone of Ms. Petito’s voice led me to doubt the credibility of Sister Aloysius’ accusations. Unfortunately, it also reminded me of a nun I met while attending a Catholic high school. That made her rendition much more believable to me.

Linda Hansen played an exceptional contrast in her role as Sister James. While timid at first, the character gradually transitioned into a hybrid of compassion and rationality. Ms. Hansen made her character’s metamorphosis very convincing. I thought her facial expressions really conveyed the true essence of “doubt”. I’m sure my face displayed a similar appearance throughout and after the performance.

In her role as Mrs. Muller, Carla Ezell did a fantastic job bringing to light that uncomfortable streak of gray that lies between black and white. Of all the characters in the play, Mrs. Muller came across as the most complex. When Sr. Aloysius shared her belief Fr. Flynn molested her son, Mrs. Muller decided to keep him in the school. This would allow her son the opportunity to get into a good college. She also implied he was homosexual, intimating he would’ve enjoyed it anyway. In addition, “it’s only until June” when he’d graduate and go on to high school. Yeah, that’s about as complex a character any playwright could create.

I should add that the Shanley made the Muellers African-American. That added another dimension of intricacy to the play. Should Mrs. Muller have sacrificed her son’s opportunity to get a good education over a nun’s uncorroborated suspicion that a priest abused her child? Not as obvious a choice to make as it seemed on the surface.

I applaud Burlington County Footlighters for presenting a play with such intricacy and controversial subject matter. While a disturbing subject, the performers delivered a rendition that did true credit to the essence of this drama. On that, there can be no doubt.

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