John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Doubt: A Parable” opens the Studio Theatre’s 2019-2020 season powerfully and with depth, as the play-turned-movie returns to its origins as a theatrical piece.
Telling the story of a strong-willed nun and principal of the Bronx parochial school St. Nicholas, award-winning actress and Georgetown University theater professor Sarah Marshall inhabits the role of Sister Aloysius, whose suspicions about wrongdoings in the school are the catalyst for the intriguing and troubling story that is “Doubt.”
Stripped down to a cast of four characters onstage, the production is a stark contrast to the richly casted 2008 film drama, both written and directed by Shanley based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning stage play “Doubt: A Parable.” The film starred Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn.
The accused priest, played by Christian Conn in the Studio’s production, sets his moral perspectives forth in sermons addressing the audience as a congregation. But the Catholic priest’s interest in Donald Muller, the school’s first African American student, comes into the focus of Sister Aloysius through the observation of Sister James, played by Amelia Pedlow.
Unlike in the film version, we never see Donald Muller and any of the visual interactions with Father Flynn that we see in the film version to build suspicion, accusations and questions. Onstage, the encounter is fully illustrated by the masterful interrogation by Marshall and her interaction between the ambivalent junior nun who observed strange behavior in the student after he had a private meeting with Father Flynn and with the priest himself.
Pedlow’s trusting and innocent character further complicates the scenario when Sister James confides in Father Flynn and declares that she believes his story about protecting the young student in a hostile environment. Questions about what really happen intensify, but are never fully explained in the end.
The characterization of Donald Muller is put into the hands of Tiffany M. Thompson, who is cast as Mrs. Muller, the so-called victim’s mother who is asked to engage in a conference with the principal about her suspicions.
“John Patrick Shanley does a great job of introducing Donald Muller’s character in scene two and then he’s the topic of discussion in scene four and scene five,” Thompson said. “I think when the audience is introduced to Mrs. Muller she’s able to complete Donald’s narrative as she painfully expresses the harsh reality her son is subject to at home and pleads with Sister Aloysius to understand her point of view. I honestly think all of the characters carry Donald Muller throughout the play and that it was intentionally written that way.”
As the only African American character in the one-act play, Thompson also has the weight of bringing forth the racial issues that hover below the surface of this powerful and moving script through her characterization of Mrs. Muller.
“I use the given circumstances written in the play to create a solid backstory that supports Mrs. Muller’s reality,” she said. “She’s in survival mode in that it’s 1964, cultural restraints are prevalent, and Donald is the only Black boy attending St. Nicholas school. She’s fighting immense obstacles out the gate. Donald’s father beats him, and she has to work her fingers to the bone to pay for her son’s education, which is ultimately Mrs. Muller’s goal, a better and safer future for her son.”
Although the fictional story is set in the contentious 1960s, the relevance of its subjects — race, faith and the abuse of power through religion — are at the forefront of the current events that fill the news.
Through the convincing and emotive work of the cast, “Doubt: A Parable,” at the Studio Theatre through Oct. 13, is not only a fine theatrical event, but it also brings to mind the issues now at play throughout the Catholic Church, and how these issues continue to create doubt and culpability still prevalent in today’s present society.
“Doubt: A Parable,” at the Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre (1501 14th Street NW), plays Tuesday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m. with a Sunday night performance at 7 p.m. Call 202-332-3300 or go to studiotheatre.org for more information.