Doubt can be a powerful force, capable of generating both curiosity and great cruelty. John Patrick Shanley’s play, “Doubt: A Parable,” which taps into the rich dramatic potentials of the emotion, and met with critical and popular success when the first production opened on Broadway in 2004. Set in 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx, “Doubt” exposes the ways in which suspicion can infect even the most sterile of environments, corrupting the purest of minds. Now the play comes to Yale through a production staged at the Jonathan Edwards Theater, with Michaela Johnson ’17 directing the four-person cast.
The cloistered setting of a rigidly traditional Catholic school in the Bronx offers the ideal playground for Shanley’s probing inquiry. As the play unfolds, we learn that doubts have been gnawing for some time upon the mind of the school’s staunchly moral principal, the bespectacled Sister Aloysius, played by Isabella Giovannini ’18. She fears that Father Flynn (Miles Walter ’18), the school’s charismatic priest and basketball coach, has behaved “inappropriately” with a boy: Donald Muller, the first black student to attend St. Nicholas.
These doubts crystallize into what seems like grim certainty as the play goes on. Our knee-jerk reaction, when presented with seemingly solid proof of Father Flynn’s perversion, is to feel revolted. Walter captures his character’s reluctance to reveal the true reason for the tête-à-tête, dithering by the desk of the principal’s study like a naughty pupil trying to escape punishment. This apparent manifestation of guilt plays off staunch certainty of Sister Aloysius.
In many ways, “Doubt” is a gift of a play. The cast is small, the staging simple — it largely unfolds in one sparsely furnished study with just four actors. The sound effects of schoolchildren playing outside among the birds, designed in this adaptation by Sunnie Kim ’18, make up for the absence of real pupils. Aesthetically, the Yale Drama Coalition production punches above its weight, with perfectly judged costumes and on-point set design. When Muller’s mother is hauled in for questioning by Sister Aloysius, for instance, her white gloves, lemony dress and tight grip on her showy handbag perfectly capture the quiet tragedy of the character.
The quality of the acting, too, is good, if variable. Walter plays the silken-voiced Father Flynn with zest and humor, for which audience members sitting at the back of the small auditorium are grateful, especially given that some of the lines delivered by the actresses are hard to hear. Giovannini plays Sister Aloysius with believable sternness, which nonetheless thaws at crucial moments, allowing her more amusing lines to remain funny. She shows some unevenness in the role, however, as becomes painfully clear when she first confronts the suspected priest and adopts such a polite tone that her accusations later on in the conversation sound a little hollow.
Susannah Krapf ’17 plays Sister James with greater consistency. If at times her show of eagerness to be the teacher’s pet seems over-egged — and her tears, in the first scene, difficult to trace to an emotional source — she is still infused with all the gooey warmth and lip-biting humility that the part demands.
The hardest role of the play, perhaps, is that of Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller, who must convincingly bat off the news that her son — the first-ever black pupil at St. Nicholas Church School — has been (possibly) molested by his basketball coach. Mrs Muller faces a hellish dilemma: whether to let her boy carry on being — maybe — physically mistreated by an otherwise benign mentor, or whether to let the “secret” come out, and risk the child being beaten to death by his own father. Jamila Tyler ’15 convincingly communicates the difficulties of her predicament.
This production is a respectable, if imperfect, take on Shanley’s piece, that fulfills the crucial requirement that we remain, like the play’s characters, in a state of intolerable doubt from start to finish.