Where the truth lies




Written by John Patrick Shanley

Directed by Christopher Arena

Center Stage Community Playhouse (www.centerstageplayhouse.org)

2474 Westchester Avenue, Bronx, New York

Non-union showcase (through November 18, 2007)

Reviewed by Judd Hollander


How can we really be 100% sure about anything, especially with a lack of definite proof? Few plays have explored this question as strongly (and with higher stakes) as John Patrick Shanley's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt. Unfortunately, the Center Stage Community Playhouse's recent staging of the work, while quite good in certain aspects, is lacking a key central element which would make the end product as questioning at it should be.


In 1964 New York, Sister Aloysious (Julia Rust), principal of a Bronx Catholic School, is sure Father Flynn (Keith Maxwell), who is also the school basketball coach, has been having improper relations with one of the male students. However, actually proving such surety is another matter entirely. Her immediate superior would not believe the charge, no one has seen any impropriety, and adding to the dilemma, the child in question is the first (and only) black student at the institution, adding both a racial and political tinge to the issue.


Needing help, she enlists the add of Sister James (Sharon Pinches), a young novice who is clearly uncomfortable as acting as a sort of spy to help Sister Aloysious in her search for the truth (or is it a witch hunt?). And what will happen when Father Flynn learns of the suspicions against him? In the end, it comes down to a test of will between two very strong individuals. 


More than a “did he or didn't he” question, Shanley uses the play to explore the politics and prejudices of the times, as well as to show how bureaucracy and limited options can hamstring even the strongest individual. This is made clear when Sister Aloysious summons Mrs. Muller (Puja Nagual), the mother of the child who may have been abused, to her office to voice her suspicions. While certainly horrified about what may be happening to her son, Mrs. Muller is trapped in a situation where doing anything would only make matters worse. (She's dealing with a violent husband, who will react badly if the child is taken out of school, and doing so would hurt her son's quest for a good education.) One of the more sobering moments in this production occurs when she tells Sister Aloysious "it's only ‘til June", meaning that if things can just stay as they are till then, her son will graduate and the problem (at least for her) will be solved.


Rust is good as Sister Aloysious, showing a strong and stern woman whose entire existence revolves around the welfare of the school and those in it. (She also allows us to see a bit behind the habit in the few brief looks at her life before she turned to the church.) Dramatically she hits all the right notes, embodying someone who sees things in only the starkest black and white and for whom there is no middle ground for anything. As she tells Father Flynn when he asks her how she can be so sure he had improper relations with a child, she answers "I have my certainty," and for her that is enough. It would have been nice however to see a bit more humor in the character, especially at the beginning when she's talking to Sister James about the role of the nuns as teachers - lines which could provide a chuckle (she hates art) instead fall flat.


A more glaring problem is that Maxwell, as Father Flynn, is not up to the challenge of the role. Not only is he unable to hold his own against Rust, but also he plays the character in a way which answers the central question of the play and is not nearly as multi-layered or ambiguous as he should be. Additionally, many of his lines come out in a monotone, be it asking for sugar for his tea or proclaiming he's done nothing wrong with the student. After watching Maxwell for a few minutes one feels he's revealed everything there is to know about the character so there's no reason to watch or care about him.


The biggest surprises (and delights) of the evening are supporting players Pinches and Nagual. The latter, in what is really just an extended cameo, at first appears to be simply a stereotypical housewife of the times (great costume by Peter Mussared), but when backed into a corner, she ends up giving Sister Aloysious a harsh lesson about the real would outside he school. Her Mrs. Muller is a proud woman, but one who has been beaten down so often, that she's tired of struggling and desperately wants to avoid any kind of conflict.


Pinches is wonderful as Sister James, bringing a great amount of humor (kudos to both her and director Christopher Arena on this point) to her uncomfortably being caught between Sister Aloysious and Father Flynn, and her inadequate feeling around people of authority in general. A woman who just wants to pass on her love of learning to her students, she's drawn into a situation she's not prepared for and as a result, finds herself questioning her faith. She also wants there to be no truth to Sisters Aloysious' allegations, so things will be quiet, calm and simple once again - making her quite like Mrs. Muller, in that regard.


Possibly the most powerful moment of the entire show is its final moments where one realizes that the problem has not been solved, just shifted to someone else's domain, as it has been many times in the past in these circumstances.  Not as well-rounded or as powerful as it could be, but at its heart, Doubt still packs quite a wallop.


The single set by Jason Bolen works well, as does the lighting by Nick Leshi.

Box Score:


Writing: 2

Directing: 1

Acting: 1

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2007 by Judd Hollander



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