Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, had the notable distinction of having its West
Coast Premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse take place simultaneously with its
Broadway debut in the spring of 2005.  I found the Playhouse production quite
thrilling, despite a shaky Linda Hunt in the role of Sister Aloysius, the same role
which won Cherry Jones the Tony. Last year at the Ahmanson, I got to see why
Jones had scored just about every award imaginable for her “force of nature”

Doubt is a play that, excellent as it is, depends greatly on its leading lady to
have its full impact.  Fortunately, South Coast Repertory’s “first lady” Linda
Gehringer is more than up to the challenge, in an Orange County Premiere
production that is in every respect deserving of superlatives.

Shanley’s play begins with a sermon by dynamic young Father Brendan Flynn,
who asks his parishioners “What do you when you’re not sure?” and concludes his
sermong with this thought-provoking statement: “Doubt is as powerful a bond
as a certainty.”

This non-traditional way of thinking does not sit well with the “by the books”
school principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier, who thinks (among other things) that a)
art class is a waste of time, b) ball point pens should be forbidden and even
cartridge pens are suspect, c) enthusiasm for teaching is a vice (and satisfaction
is too), d) innocence is a form of laziness, e) a touch on the wrist may mean much
more than just a touch on the wrist. Sister A. has in fact seen Father Flynn (a
teacher in her school) touch a 12-year-old male student on his wrist, a gesture
which she says caused the boy to recoil, and from this single action she has
convinced herself that Father F. is a dangerous pedophile.

Scanty evidence indeed, if you ask me, and yet about half of Doubt’s audience
seems to share her certainty, while the other half remains dubious, willing either
to give Father Flynn the benefit of the doubt or to find him as blameless as he
steadfastly maintains.

Sister A., however, is as certain as certain can be, and enlists the help of the ever
cheerful young Sister James to spy on Father Flynn and report back to her. When
a reluctant Sister J. informs Sister A. that Donald Muller, the boy in question, has
seemed troubled of late and came to class one day with alcohol on the breath,
Sister A. determines that Father F. must have given Donald the communion wine
as part of his seduction attempt, and she wants the priest out of her school, her
parish, and one would presume, out of the priesthood as well.

There is a slight hitch, however.  A nun is forbidden to take action against a
priest.  The only approved course of action would be to report him to the
Monsignor, and Sister A. is convinced that the Monsignor would take Father F.’s
side.  There is also the fact that Donald is the first Negro student in her school,
which makes the situation especially touchy. So Sister A. hatches a plan to
achieve her aims, ethically or not, and like a runaway train, nothing or no one
dare get in her way.

South Coast Repertory’s production is blessed by the presence of the stellar Ms.
Gehringer. Is she as magnificent as Cherry Jones? I’ll let someone else dare to
respond to that one. I’ll simply say that Gehringer gives a powerful and
absolutely tremendous performance. Her Sister A. is a woman well aware of the
outside world and staunchly disapproving of anything newfangled. Aided
immensely by Shanley’s sly wit, Gehringer shows not a hint of doubt or trace of
irony in making such declarations as “Frosty the Snowman should be banned
from the airwaves.”  We laugh, and we are aghast at the same time. Gehringer
gives a performance that is wholly her own (no need for a pro like her to borrow
from Ms. Jones), no more so than in the way she chooses to say, and play, the
memorable curtain line.  A devastating theatrical moment, and a superb
performance that will be remembered.

The decision to cast James Joseph O’Neil as Father Flynn was an excellent one. 
Looking as Irish as his name (ruddy skin, fair wavy hair, and the face of a nearly
handsome prize-fighter), O’Neil’s “look” is not quite that of a leading man,
making us vacillate between trust and dubiousness. When he says, on more than
one occasion, that he prefers to keep his fingernails long, we wonder if perhaps,
just perhaps, this might be a sign of some perversion. At the same time, we (or
at least I) tend to believe him when he rails at how Sister A.’s “poisoned mind”
has taken harmless things and twisted them into something perverted. O’Neil
gives a striking performance indeed.

Then there is young actress du jour Rebecca Mozo, fresh from her triumph (and
2nd Ovation nomination in a row) in Trying, playing young Sister James.  Mozo
might not have seemed the most obvious choice for the role, but she is splendid,
from the moment she utters her first line in the trusting young nun’s distinctive
Bronx/Long Island tones. Mozo is clearly cowed by Gehringer in the early scenes,
which makes it all the more powerful when later she asserts her faith in Father
Flynn. An actress deservedly on the rise.

Finally, in the role that won Adriane Lenox the Tony and Patrice Pitman Quinn an
Ovation nomination, there is the magnificent Kimberly Scott, in a performance
wholly her own and (if I can trust my memory of those two superb performances),
the best of the bunch. The role is that of Mrs. Muller, the 12-year-old’s mother. 
Lenox and Quinn both had a bit of the patrician about them, a certain
elegance and grace that was in marked contrast to the down to earth Sister A.  
Unlike those two ladies (and I use the word deliberately), Scott, who did
memorable work at SCR in The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, appears
slightly uncomfortable in her dressy suit and hat. She is even more
uncomfortable when Sister A. attempts to “help” her son. I would guess that
much of the audience is shocked, even revolted, by the way Mrs. M. views
Father F.’s possible hanky-panky with Donald.  But when Scott cries out
repeatedly the infamous line “It’s just till June,” each time with more force and
conviction, the result is devastating, and powerful as all get-out.  With any
justice, Scott will follow in Lenox’s and Quinn’s footsteps come awards season.

Director Martin Benson shows a real understanding of Shanley’s play, its drama
as well as its frequent humor, and has guided his four actors to tremendous
performances.  He is aided greatly by Thomas Buderwitz’s revolving set, Angela
Balough Calin’s costumes, Lonnie Raphael Alcaraz’s lighting, and Tom Cavnar’s
sound design.

Orange County residents who could not make it up to Pasadena in 2005 or to
the Ahmanson in 2006 need feel no regrets, for South Coast Repertory’s fine
production stands tall on its own merits.  I highly recommend this production. 
You will have much to rave about, and even more to discuss on the way home
from the theater!  Did he, or didn’t he? Only the playwright, and the actor
playing the part, know for sure.

South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 27, 2007
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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