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The icy fingers of doubt grip all four hearts in Doubt, A Parable, PlayMakers Repertory Company’s powerful production of playwright John Patrick Shanley’s thought-provoking four-character play about a compassionate young priest rightly or wrongly suspected of pedophilia. Now being performed in rotating repertory in Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Doubt features a crackerjack cast, under the sure-handed direction of Drew Barr.
Set in the Bronx in 1964, Doubt won the 2005 Tony Award® for Best Play and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The current PlayMakers production of the play stars Julie Fishell as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the gruff, no-nonsense principal of St. Anthony’s Catholic elementary school, and Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Father Brendan Flynn, a handsome and charming newcomer to the parish whom Sister Aloysius strongly suspects of having an inappropriate relationship with Donald Muller, a 12-year-old altar boy whom Father Flynn has befriended. Muller is the school’s first and only African-American student.
Sister Aloysius is unashamedly old-fashioned and a bit eccentric — indeed, at one point she denounces the replacement of fountain pens by ballpoint pens, because she believes that ballpoint pens make their users press down too hard and, somehow, pressing down too hard makes the students act like monkeys — and Father Flynn, who teaches physical education and religion in addition to his priestly duties, is a strong proponent of the liberal reforms in the Catholic Church that resulted from Vatican II (the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican), which commenced in 1962 under Pope John XXIII.
Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn were always on a collision course when it came to church doctrine. So, when there is a faint whiff of suspicion about his behavior toward Donald Muller, Sister Aloysius predictably smells a great, big rat.
Sister Aloysius has a mind of winter, and Julie Fishell not only does an admirable job of projecting that part of her prickly personality, but also keeping the crusty old nun credible and sympathetic, despite her obvious eccentricities and ultra-conservatism where church matters are concerned. Jeff Cornell likewise limns Father Flynn’s character in all its nuances. The priest is a terrific preacher and especially compassionate toward at-risk children, yet more than a little cocky and not at all shy about exercising his prerogatives, in the church hierarchy, over an upstart nun who persistently questions his motives and, ultimately, becomes his most implacable foe.
Also excellent are Janie Brookshire as Sister James, a brand-new eighth-grade teacher who senses something may be wrong in Father Flynn’s attentions toward Donald Muller, and Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy with whom Father Flynn may have formed an unnatural attachment. Brookshire’s Sister James is sweet and sensitive and more than a little innocent about the vicissitudes of life, but Hunter-Williams’ Mrs. Muller is worldly wise and tough as a nickel steak.
Dramatist John Patrick Shanley’s timely parable about the corrosive effects of suspicion on the soul — and the damage done when suspicious minds violate the Sixth Commandment (“Thou shall not kill”) and destroy a person’s reputation with gossip — is superbly staged by director Drew Barr on a striking set by scenic designer Marion Williams, who brilliantly evokes the Gothic ambience of St. Anthony’s Church in recreating Sister Aloysius’ Spartan office, the school gymnasium, the church garden, and the church altar. Lighting designer Justin Townsend, costume designer Jan Chambers, properties mistress Cheralyn Lambeth, vocal coach Bonnie Raphael, and sound designer Michèl Marrano also do their parts to help gin up and sustain the suspense that makes Doubt such a must-see drama and, no doubt, the subject of more than a few sermons in the weeks to come.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Doubt, A Parable Tuesday, Feb. 5 and 19, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 6 and 20, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 9 and 23, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 10 and 24, at 2 p.m.; Thursday, Feb. 14 and 28, at 8 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 15 and 29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 16, at 2 p.m.; in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/. Note 1: There will be free post-show discussions on Feb. 6th axnd 10th. Note 2: There will be an all-access performance at 8 p.m. on Feb. 19th, which will be audio-described by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/), and also features Braille playbills, large-print playbills, and a tactile tour (arranged in advance) for patrons with impaired vision. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=392483. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0918927/.