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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 10.02.08




Save the Children?

Choice, guilt and confusion in the Church

by Suzi Steffen

Remember the mean nuns at parochial school? They would slap palms with a ruler or make unruly girls kneel outside in the snow. What happens when one clashes with the parish priest? What if race, gender, sexual orientation, educational reform and Vatican II mix it up in that clash?

Mrs. Muller (Donella-Elizabeth Alston) and Sister Aloysius (Janet Steiger Carr) in Doubt

In John Patrick Shanley’s short play Doubt, running now at the Lord Leebrick Theatre, the setting is a parochial grade school in 1964. Working-class Irish and Italian white kids mix in this Bronx school, but there’s a new boy in the 8th grade — and he’s black.

We don’t get to see the students, which makes them ciphers, but they’re not the point anyway. Four adults around the kids take stances in a power struggle that comments on a society permeated by certainty, propelled by nearly 2,000 years of dogma and designed to give power to men. Doubt opens with what should be a powerful sermon from Father Brendan Flynn (Patric Knight), a man dealing with moral tumult even as he reassures his congregation that it’s OK not to be certain.

The Church telling people it’s all right to doubt? Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Janet Steiger Carr), principal of the parish school, can’t believe it. The sister has a most uncomfortable aura of superiority: Ballpoint pens make students lazy. Long fingernails on men show moral depravity. And the progressive reforms Father Flynn says he wants to make are completely out of the question at her school. 

As Flynn, Knight makes a valiant effort but sounds like a 2008 man trying to act like a priest, which doesn’t fit the time frame of the play and makes his pivotal sermon scenes less convincing. That’s too bad, for Carr makes a fine sparring partner.

Aloysius sees other signs of the Fall in young Sister James (Danielle deLuise), who has never thought about whether her students might try to fool her in order to get out of school. Other things Sister James hasn’t thought about: What women should do to keep power in the face of men who want to take that power away and what some priests might do to vulnerable children. Father Flynn hasn’t thought about respecting women, and Sister Aloysius definitely hasn’t considered how racism might mix with issues around sexual orientation. She’s schooled by the African American boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Donella-Elizabeth Alston), in a powerful scene of secrets, surprises and gray areas between certainty and doubt.

This scene points up the script’s major weakness: The playwright uses African Americans (one of whom never appears and one of whom has one scene) as touchstones for white characters so the white folks can work out their issues. Not that those issues (priest molestation; patriarchy vs. powerful women) aren’t vital, but using the new boy’s race to set them up? Disturbing.

Yet the play has strengths and deserves a wide audience. The script leaves the audience wondering what really occurred, leaving room for much post-play discussion to deal with lingering doubts.

 

Doubt runs through Oct. 18 at the Leebrick. Tix at www.lordleebrick.com or 465-1506.

 

 

OPENING NIGHTS

The Winter’s Tale opens at 7:30 pm Thursday, Oct. 2, at LCC.

A tale of darkness and jealousy, danger, magic, loyalty, friendship and the outdoors; a tale in which comedy, tragedy and romance mix — capped off by dance. Another in the famous line of Sparky Roberts-directed Shakespearean productions. Show dates are Oct. 2-4, 9-12 & 16-18. Tix at 463-5761.

 

A Streetcar Named Desire opens at 8 pm Friday, Oct. 3, at the Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove.

“Stell-aaaaaaaaa!” There’s no Brando in Cottage Grove, but the machinations of Blanche and Stanley over innocent Stella entertain whenever Tennessee Williams’ play pops up. Show dates are Oct. 3-5, 10-12 & 17-19. Tix at www.cottagetheatre.org or 942-8001.