Centrepoint, Palmerston North

15/06/2006 - 15/07/2006

Production Details

Written by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Steven Ray

Set against the backdrop of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, DOUBT is the story of a strong-minded woman faced with a difficult decision. Should she voice concerns about one of her male colleagues, even if she’s not entirely certain of the truth?

This incredible play is a hard, gritty look at the complexities of human behaviour. It will leave you gasping at its twists and turns as it grapples for truth in life’s murky shadows.

Sister Aloysious - Donogh Rees
Father Flynn - Simon Ferry
Sister James - Angela Green
Mrs Muller - Tanea Heke

Production Manager - Shelley Irwin
Costume Design - Ian Harman
Set Design - Brian King
Set Construction - Harvey Taylor & Dean Wright
Lighting Design - Natasha James
Stage Manager - John Lepper

Theatre ,

1hr 50min, incl. interval

Stimulating Debate

Review by John Smythe 24th Jun 2006

Following the doubts I expressed about Centrepoint’s direction, or one particular director’s approach, concerning The Fundraiser (reviewed 30 April 2006), it was a pleasure to join a full house – gathered on a freezing Friday night in the second week of their latest production – to appreciate a riveting piece of theatre.

The ingenious thing about John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, directed by Steven Ray, is that it provokes post-performance discussion based on the very criteria the play interrogates. Was she right? Why? Was he guilty? How do we know? Was the outcome just or a crime in itself? What would we have done?

Human history is led by those who have the courage of their convictions, be they great visionaries or despotic dictators. Without convictions we would be lawless. And warless. But how do we balance our desire – our need – for certainty against that crucial cornerstone of justice: beyond reasonable doubt? In essence, the play asks: what is ‘truth’ and how can we be sure of it?

It is 1964, the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, and the setting is a Catholic junior school in the Bronx, attached to a rectory and church. By placing his play in a space bound by faith, education and justice, Shanley generates a compelling eternal triangle of debate that reaches well beyond the particulars of this scenario.

Father Flynn (Simon Ferry), a sermonising priest institutionally privileged and protected by a male Catholic hierarchy, constantly wrestles with the complexities of faith, doubt, certainty, intolerance and what it really means to be a man. He also coaches basketball, has long fingernails and a sweet tooth and uses a ballpoint pen. And he offers special protection to a 12 year-old boy, the school’s first and only Afro-American pupil, whose father is a different kind of man …

Sister Aloysious (Donogh Rees), the highly principled school principal, is gripped by a growing belief that – like the existence of God itself – gains self-fulfilling credence as evidence appears to mount. She distrusts the intrusion of secular values in education and ballpoint pens, and thrives on her fear-engendered authority. Having been married and lost her husband in the war, her concerns cannot easily be attributed to ignorance or fear of the unknown, although little learning could well be a dangerous thing.

The bright-eyed Sister James (Angela Green) has an enthusiasm for teaching in general and history in particular that is fated to be tarnished by experience. While her innocence may be as equally and oppositely admirable as the ‘healthy cynicism’ of her superior, it could also be dangerous given the proposition that sexual predators may be perpetrating perversions under the perpetual protection of a closed and unaccountable system.

Coming into the story from ‘the real world’ is Mrs Muller (Tanea Heke), mother of the boy in question, whose pragmatism brings a whole new dimension to the judgements we make – and judge we will, because that’s what human’s do.

Under Steven Ray’s direction the cast is careful not to pre-judge their characters, to the extent that they sometimes come across as little more than clear and articulate mouthpieces for the different viewpoints, carefully orchestrated to increase their intensity and modulate their voices for maximum theatrical effect.

The exception is Angela Green’s Sister James, whose visible fallibility and vulnerability is integral to the plot. Her simple humanity makes is especially easy to empathise with her. And maybe that’s the intention.

Maybe it’s part of the point that the others are playing out roles, in costume, in the theatre of life, and any sense that they are not being entirely honest – that at certain, or uncertain, moments they are ‘acting out’ their socio-political positions – is entirely appropriate.

Certainly Shanley is sparse with the back-stories, leaving the foundations of the characters’ emotional and psychological dispositions and motivations up to our own imaginations – which is very much to the point. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering whether the central ‘argument’ really would have been compromised if the actors had taken more time and space to flesh out their characters with humanising behavioural idiosyncrasies.

That said, there is no doubt that this production – in Brian King’s sparse traverse set lit by Natasha James, with costumes designed by Ian Harman – delivers the goods when it comes to stimulating debate.

I came out of it quite certain I knew where the truth lay, only to find that my companion felt the opposite, with equal conviction. The conversation that followed added immeasurably to the whole experience.


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