The Catholic Church has been the subject of many scandals over the last few decades, and that has left a lot of its followers disillusioned. According to a report from the Pew Forum, the number of American Catholics has declined by 3 million since 2007; they now make up only 20% of the general population. According to John Patrick Shanley’s forward to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Doubt: A Parable,” there was a time when such uncertainly and lack of faith in the church was unheard of. That time was the early 1960s, when the author himself was attending Catholic school in the Bronx. At the confluence of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the shift in Catholic doctrine called Vatican II, and a new social order that demanded questioning authority, Shanley pits the old ways against the new in a tightly wrought drama with very high stakes. Directed by Artistic Director C. Michael Wright, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre brings an exceptional production of “Doubt: A Parable” to the Cabot Stage through April 29th.
In a four person pyschologcial drama with very little onstage action, the actors have got to be superb keep the audience captivated— and they are. With a cast of April Paul, Malkia Stampley, and APT regulars Marcus Truschinski and Colleen Madden, each line and each moment is riveting. Truschinski begins the show, as Father Brendan Flynn, delivering a sermon from an impossibly high and commanding pulpit that takes up half the stage (Steve Barnes, scenic design). The young priest’s homily places us in time, by referencing the recent Kennedy assassination, and it also addresses the titular theme of the show: What happens when doubt creeps in to one’s relationship with God? More than that, it introduces us, the congregation, to a new approach to Catholicism. Delivered conversationally with a warm tone, the sermon doesn’t condemn, it comforts. And looking and sounding like a Kennedy himself, Truschinski’s Boston accent and clean cut good looks make him a charismatic orator.
It’s no wonder that buttoned up, by the book, stern Sister Aloysius (Madden) disapproves of him. As principal of the school where he teaches, she believes in strict discipline. In preserving tradition. And in keeping members of holy orders distant from the flock they lead, both emotionally and spiritually. She believes her job is to frighten her charges and teach them to obey, not encourage them to embrace new things — from ballpoint pens to transistor radios, to adding a secular song to the annual Christmas pageant.
The principal’s other foil is the wide-eyed nun Sister James (a fragile April Paul) who loves teaching and approaches her students with love and enthusiasm rather than cynicism. She is reluctantly drawn into Sister Aloysius’s persistent line of questioning about a new student, their first black pupil, who is, predictably, having trouble fitting in. When the principal’s concern for the boy clashes with her young teacher’s inexperience and her dislike for Father Flynn, she is consumed with suspicion. Proof or not, the principal makes it her mission to drive the priest from her school. She even enlists the boy’s mother in her quest, (a deceptively strong Malkia Stampley) but the she complicates the issue rather than clarifying it. The only real pragmatist in the play and one accustomed to feeling powerless, Stampley insists that even if Father Flynn is abusing her son, he’s also providing a good male role model— one he doesn’t have at home. She’s willing to take the good with the bad.
The genius of this play exists on several levels. As adversaries, Madden and Truschinski inhabit characters whose power dynamics keep shifting. Each threatens the other with disciplinary action or dismissal for overstepping their bounds. Both characters admit to missteps in their past. Both claim to be working only for the good of the students. Both are strong characters who manipulate the facts for their own ends, if need be. And best of all, the script leaves plenty of room for questions in the minds of the audience in the end. There’s no smoking gun, no last minute confession. Only belief and doubt. And given what modern viewers know about pedophile priests who took advantage of young children for decades, we can feel the weight of the potential consequences here even more heavily.
The other stunning achievement here is in the performances of the two leads. At first, Madden’s pursed lips and low, carefully modulated voice communicate a steady and rigid woman who will not be crossed. By contrast, Truschinski plays the priest as open and friendly, making jokes and flashing an easy smile in order to set the sisters at ease. But as each character is pushed, they begin to panic. Truschinski’s grin transforms to a set jaw. His warm eyes turn steely and we believe he might be capable of very dark acts. As Madden’s desperation grows, her voice turns into an alarm bell and anger seizes her slight frame. Her plaintive request to take Sister James’s hand at the end of the play is a revelation.
My only quibble with the production is the staging. Most of the play is composed of one or two character scenes that zip along at lightning speed. It’s a small story that primarily takes place in a rectory garden and a school office, which is why the large scale of the set is so surprising, and doesn’t succeed completely. It takes over the Cabot visually and actually restricts the movement of the actors considerably. The result is a succession of very static scenes where words fly but bodies are still, or actors pace back and forth over very narrow walkways. It’s not the best use of the space or the actors.
But this is a very small comment on a production that is a large achievement. Ignore the weather and go see it.
What: “Doubt: A Parable” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
When: through April 29
Where: The Broadway Theatre Center in the Third Ward
Who: Directed by C. Michael Wright, featuring a dynamite cast including Marcus Truschinski and Colleen Madden
How much? $30 - $40, with some half-price rush tickets also available.
More info: milwaukeechambertheatre.com
Why go? It’s a brilliant, difficult story brought to life expertly by the two leads. And I don’t care if you’ve seen the movie. This story will resonate in a whole new way when you see it live.
An edited version of this post appears on OnMilwaukee.com.