This Play’s A Hit, No Doubt!

I sat in the Bluma Appel Theatre tonight, May 5th, 2009 and tried vehemently to listen to David Storch’s initial monologue as Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt, a Parable running until May 30th at the Canadian Stage Company, and yet from the audience, all I could hear was coughing. Usually this would be a minor annoyance to me, but as it got progressively worse, and seemed to spread rapidly through the theatre like in a science fiction film or an episode of House, and with the current state of pandemic, I began to feel a little uneasy. People started to whisper about it. It seemed absurd.
The lights fade. The scene changes. Seana McKenna enters…
I didn’t hear another cough for the rest of the show.
Doubt is the Pulitzer Prize (2005) winning play by John Patrick Shanley about two nuns wrestling with their consciences and inner turmoil in suspecting that the male priest working in their 1964 Bronx Catholic School may not be behaving ethically with the children. The writing captures the essence of character and circumstance with brilliant intensity, severity and yet frequent bouts of wit and humor. The story is utterly captivating and evokes discussion of a number of quite convoluted issues; and indeed the audience was buzzing all the way out into the lobby of the Bluma and into the streets.
The four performances in Doubt shine brightly within this web of suspicion, corruption, and suppression where the power dynamics can turn on a dime. Raven Dauda gives a beautiful performance as Mrs. Muller, a character who is given only one scene and yet, provides the most unexpected twist in the play. David Storch characterizes Father Flynn as slippery as a chameleon and flips between supreme charm, inexplicable meticulous rage, and wiggly uneasiness with perfect timing and sense. His pauses are so filled with depth, people are holding their breaths. Shanley’s characters so often are not exactly as you would expect them to be. Father Flynn advocates for a modern, secular approach to the Catholic Church and a method of teaching children with familiarity and love. It is to Storch’s credit that throughout the play the audience mirrors Sister Aloysius’ suspicions and yet is simultaneously filled with doubt.
I was especially interested in Daniela Vlaskalic’s portrayal of Sister James. I had seen Vlaskalic first in a live improvised play Rocky Spring based on the style of Anton Chekhov and presented by Impromptu Splendor and the National Theatre of the World. I was struck in Rocky Spring how natural and earnest and simple Vlaskalic’s acting (and improvising) was, and I expected to find her portrayal of the innocent Sister James to be the same. Yet, Vlaskalic plays her character as being so repressed, so frightened of Sister Aloysius, that it is obvious that she is not in the position to be entirely natural, earnest, or simple. What emerges from this is fascinating. She, like Storch’s Father Flynn, is tormented, as she struggles to conform into the model teacher that Sister Aloysius wishes she would become while trying to hold tightly to the small remnants of her personality. In doubting Father Flynn, Sister James must confront the very essence of her own beliefs in goodness, love and faith.
It is Seana McKenna’s performance as Sister Aloysius that insures that the audience does not blink, breathe or cough for the entire 90 minute play. She is utter perfection down to every minute detail. She creates the perfect balance of razor sharp, terror inducing frigidness, with so much mounting passion and concern festering which transforms into blind determination for justice. Can Sister Aloysius be called a conservative? She is such a delightful contradiction to watch as she stands horrified of Frosty the Pagan Snowman, yet proves willing to break the rules of the Church in attempt to do what she thinks is right. Shanley has given this character so much humanity, and McKenna embodies it with absolute brilliance.
I wouldn’t herald Doubt as proof that such American hits are in any way superior to the theatre that comes out of Canada. It is undoubtedly a powerful play, but it is no more captivating that many of the Canadian plays I have seen this year. That said, I think it’s the strongest show that I have seen at the Canadian Stage Company all season. If you’re not convinced, you should head down to the Bluma Appel Theatre and see for yourself. For tickets please visit or call the Box Office at 416 368-3110.

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