Thursday, March 06, 2008

Doubt: A Parable

Compelling ‘DOUBT’ is at Cleveland Play House

John Patrick Shanley’s ‘DOUBT: A PARABLE,’ now in production at the Cleveland Play House, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony for Best Drama, as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play of the season.

There is much anticipation concerning the movie version, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is presently in production.

Not only is the script well crafted, with the right direction and casting, the results can be compelling theatre. Fortunately for Play House patrons, Seth Gordon, who directed the show, proves once again he is a master at his craft. The show is well-paced and hits all the emotional chords. Both the laughs and the dramatic tensions are highlighted. This is professional theatre as its best!

On Broadway, all four members of the cast were nominated for Tony Awards. I saw the show shortly after it premiered and that ensemble had nothing on the CPH group.

The 90-minute play runs without intermission. This is a wise choice, because any break in the constantly building tension would ruin the over-all effect.

The story is housed in a Catholic elementary school presided over by Sister Aloysius, a traditional no-nonsense nun who wears her habit as armor against modernism and change. She is in a battle for the hearts and minds of her pupils with a young priest who believes the clergy should be accessible to the parish and be thought of "as members of their family." These divergent thoughts are accented by the Sister’s “feelings” and “instincts” that the priest is molesting the schools’ only black student. Aloysius confronts Flynn with her suspicions.

To give away any more of the plot would eliminate the doubt of the conclusion and thwart the “second act,” which probably takes place as theatre-goers travel homeward, discussing their doubts about the priest’s innocence or guilt.

Barbara Andres is appropriately unbending and scary as Sister Aloysius. The women sitting next to me, a product of Catholic schools, moaned, “Oh my God, she’s my old principal, every Catholic school kid’s nightmare!” Early-on Andres wisely underplays the vocal aspects of the role so that when she needs her verbal power, it becomes even more emphatic than if she had over-projected through out.

Michael Frederic is convincing as the Priest. He makes us want to believe him. But, are we intentionally led by his charm and demeanor to make us assume his innocence, or are we being tricked by a master manipulator?

Jennifer Ruffner, noted for her performances on local stages, hits all the emotional right notes as Sister James, a dynamic but naïve young teacher who is caught between the opposing forces of the Sister and the Priest.

Cherene Snow, who received extended applause as she made her exit after a tense but pivotal scene, is compelling as the mother of the Black student who understands the realities of life as they relate to her son.

Russell Parkman’s set and Trad Burns’ lighting enhance the production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Seth Gordon and his CPH cast deserve accolades for their compelling production of ‘DOUBT: A PARABLE.” If you don’t see this production you will miss one of the highlights of the local theatrical season!