The Atlantic Stage’s current production is “Doubt: A Parable,” the 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, by John Patrick Shanley. The play is set in 1964 when, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, America was questioning all of her values. The play calls on us to question all of what we thought was true and absolute.
The action of the play and its theme is presented in the form of a Catholic school where Sister Aloysius (an excellent portrayal by company member and veteran equity actor Sandi Shackelford) “doubts” the intentions of the new priest, Father Flynn (masterfully played by Steve Harley, a veteran Shakespearean actor), toward one of the students.
The optimistic young nun, Sister James, is brought to life superbly by Coastal Carolina University student Hannah Lewis. I am sure we will continue to see her on stage here. Char Bell hits exactly the right notes in the difficult role of the affected boys’ mother, Mrs. Muller, who confronts Sister Aloysius and the older nun’s doubts with her own reality.
Achieving cohesion of any acting cohort is tricky, and in this play, it is particularly difficult since the four actors must remain separate and even hostile toward one another while working as a unit to keep the emotional tension high. Director Jen Plants is currently the Carl Djerassi Playwriting Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who recently directed “Richard II” at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, succeeds with flying colors in bringing the company and audience together in this production. She aptly outlines for us the play’s central themes and questions, including, “What do you do, when you are no longer sure?”
The audience is pulled into the play’s action, inviting us to explore our own “doubts,” from the very beginning. The emotional tensions remains tight and unbroken until the very last moment of the play, in the small shrine area where once the nuns prayed in spiritual safety and with confidence instead of doubt. There is no intermission. In this production, intermission would be an interruption. However, the action is very well choreographed.
Set design by Thom Penn, lighting by Amy Edge, costumes by Erin Dooley and sound design by David N. DeMattia worked their magic to propel the audience into the world of 1964. Small details really add to the enjoyment — the costuming of the mother in all white, contrasting with the black habits of the nuns and the priest’s cassock, and the way Sister James holds her hands when standing at rest. The detail in the stage set is so refined that in the section set apart for the shrine there are even garden work bricks on the floor.
There is no doubt about the fact that this is a masterfully acted, directed and produced piece of theater. Be sure to make time to see it.