A decade after it debuted, John Patrick Shanley's play "Doubt: A Parable" still packs an unsettling dramatic punch. Local audiences can once again confront the many challenges poised by "Doubt" thanks to Writers Theatre's perfectly pitched site-specific production at Glencoe Union Church.
As Writers Theatre continues this transitionary season while construction continues on its new theater complex set to open in 2016, its production of "Doubt" actually takes on an extra dramatic weight in this temporary venue rather than feeling like a move made out of necessity. And since Writers Theatre has long used the library space of Glencoe Union Church for rehearsals, director William Brown and his design team know how to get the most out of this venue theatrically.
"Doubt: A Parable"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Writers Theatre at Glencoe Union Church, 263 Park Ave., Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday (select 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday); 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through July 19
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: On the street
Rating: Issues of suspected abuse and sexuality makes this for teens or older
Set in autumn 1964 at St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx, "Doubt" emerges as a battle of wills between the stern principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Karen Janes Woditsch), and the new and popular parish priest, Father Flynn (Steve Haggard).
Father Flynn aims to be a reformer, taking to heart many of the changes made by the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council. Sister Aloysius is much more old school, often bemoaning the decline in standards as evidenced by the declining state of students' penmanship to young girls wearing lipstick.
Sister Aloysius all but bullies the new teacher, Sister James (Eliza Stoughton), to alter her friendly teaching style and to watch out for any kind of deviancy. So when Sister James mentions that Father Flynn may be showing inappropriate attention to the school's first African-American student (the unseen Donald Muller), Sister Aloysius pounces on the suspicion with a fervor to oust Flynn from his post. In her pursuit for justice, Sister Aloysius goes so far as to speak to Donald's loving mother, Mrs. Muller (Ann Joseph), when faced with an initial setback.
What is brilliant and equally unsettling about "Doubt" is that Shanley never appears to fully take sides or reveal what may or may not have happened with the implied abuse. Throughout "Doubt," Shanley is always pushing audiences to question their own assumptions of faith and certainty and never to offer any easy answers.
This ambiguity in Shanley's text is artfully assumed by Brown's quartet of fine actors who each plead their characters' case while also revealing flaws through the heated and often frustrated confrontations with each other. And crucially, the performers also know how to diffuse the tension with great comic timing, so there are momentary reprises from the behind-the-scenes hierarchical battles and bitter quests for truth.
Brown and set designer Kevin Depinet create an appropriately severe and cloistered space that also highlights the location's existing stained-glass window and heating vents. Thanks to lighting designer Sarah Hughey's fine work, the mood can instantly shift from feeling uncomfortably claustrophobic and dark to airy and ethereal (especially with a faceted stained-glass effect).
Since its off-Broadway debut in 2004, "Doubt" famously conquered Broadway by winning four top Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2005. "Doubt" has also transformed into new forms, notably when Shanley not only adapted and directed "Doubt" into a starry 2008 film that was nominated for five Academy Awards, but also when he teamed up with composer Douglas Cuomo to re-imagine "Doubt" as an opera that debuted in 2013 at Minnesota Opera.
But with "Doubt" at Writers Theatre, the work is taken back to its core with the original compact cast size and its hearty dramatic roots. This is truly an ideal way to revisit "Doubt" once again, or to expose friends to the unrelenting power of the play that unquestionably will be counted as a masterpiece of 21st-century American drama.