‘Doubt: A Parable’ at Lantern

A timely look at priestly abuse

“The beginning of change is the moment of doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.” — John Patrick Shanley

Intuitive suspicions: Mary Martello and Ben Dibble (Photo by Mark Garvin)

When the winds of Vatican II (1962-65) blew in fresh approaches and swept out entrenched ways in the church, they also started loosening dirt. Allegations of priestly misconduct began to leak in a slow trickle. But it wasn’t until the late ’80s that accusations piled up, and in more recent years a ferocious and shamefully mighty torrent of long-term abuse cases and systemic higher level cover-ups has been exposed.

On Wednesday, January 21 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis appointed Bishop Charles Scicluna, long-time Vatican prosecutor, to head a new panel that will hear appeals by priests accused of molesting minors. Coinciding with the Vatican’s announcement of the leadership of the appeal panel, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable opened at the Lantern Theater, completing a trio of cerebral plays in their 2014-15 season. (The other two productions were Arcadia and QED.)

Infinite doubt

Playwright Shanley notes in his preface, “Conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite.” Doubt weighs on both sides when suspicion falls on a priest. Those familiar with the 2008 movie version of Doubt — with screenwriting and direction by the playwright, and a stellar cast of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis —would find it interesting to see how Lantern Theater has handled the play.

In program notes from the Broadway opening in 2005, Shanley wrote: “The shepherds, so invested in the surface, sacrificed actual good for perceived virtue.” That brief statement on priestly and church hierarchy transgression makes it clear that while Shanley’s play offers different perspectives, it tends to favor one side of the puzzle. Although that may be true, he keeps things balanced in a state of uncertainty, leaving room for qualms, and asking: Can you be sure?

Set in the Bronx in 1964 during the time of Vatican II, Doubt opens with Fr. Brendan Flynn (Ben Dibble) delivering a perhaps too knowing sermon about doubt, which raises school principal Sister Aloysius’s eyebrow. A Sister of Charity and a woman of definite opinions and strong convictions, Sister Aloysius Beauvier trusts in her own worldly wisdom. Disturbed by a nagging feeling that something is not right about Father Flynn, she plans to act against him based on intuitive suspicions rather than evidence-based facts.

Evoking authority

Within Lantern Theater’s small performance space, a slice of church interior overlooks the main set where indoor and outdoor elements meet in a kind of fuzzed line that separates a sober courtyard from the school principal’s office. With sparse heavy furniture, a small crucifix tacked up on a window frame, and a solid wooden door with a large transom window above it, the office is a vision of old-fashioned church authority.

Although it may not sound like a subject that could be laced with humor, it actually is. Mary Martello approaches her stunningly on-target portrayal of Sr. Aloysius with skilled simplicity, delivering her pronouncements with a gravitas that still allows for their sometimes inherent humor. Strictly no-nonsense, she aims to toughen up young Sister James in order to use her as a tool, informing her that “Satisfaction is a vice,” and “Innocence is a form of laziness.” Fresh-faced Clare Mahoney, totally believable as a nun, was last seen at the Lantern in QED nailing a very different sort of role.

Many will recognize the stamp of these teaching sisters. In the Philadelphia area, it was not Saint Elizabeth Seton’s Sisters of Charity but rather the IHM, the order of “Mighty Macs,” who ruled Catholic education with conviction, judiciousness, and mostly sincere caring for many years. Back in the day, discipline was still taught to the tune of the sturdy wooden ruler. Yet the long reign of those teaching sisters who straightened out a lot of kids is remembered by many older folks in Philadelphia with a certain degree of pride and fondness.

Dream cast

The casting of Lantern’s Doubt couldn’t have been more astute. This is a dream cast. In addition to the two beautifully played nuns, Ben Dibble’s warm and politically savvy Fr. Flynn bears the burdens of his religious obligations – the sisters, the sermons, the demands of parish duties and children under his care — along with his own doubt, outrage, and possible faults. In the course of Father’s travails, the director has Dibble tip the scales in an outburst that’s probably more dramatic and revealing than the playwright intended.

Lisha McKoy plays Mrs. Muller, mother of the school’s first black student. When called in to meet with Sr. Aloysius, McKoy deftly negotiates the mother’s path, asserting that Fr. Flynn has been her troubled gay son’s only refuge. She proceeds from polite respect, to stating her position of ambition for her son at any cost, to walking out on the principal. It’s notable that in these tightly constructed, linear scenes, which build both sides of the case, the centerpiece of the problems, Mrs. Muller’s son, is never seen.

All the world’s a stage. Has the pendulum swung too far on the world stage today? Have innocent priests been swept up with the guilty? Will some who are guilty plead their cases to the new Vatican panel of senior canon lawyers? Can the panel determine which sanctioned priests have a creditable defense? Will the innocent be cleared? “The beginning of change is the moment of doubt.”

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