The Practice of Suspense and Faith: URTC’s Doubt: A Parable

Posted March 15, 2016 in
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Suspicion is a feeling universal to humans. It sinks in slowly, starting with a single moment of doubt. Once suspicion arises within us, it is nearly impossible to close our doors to it until we have what we’ve been looking for: the truth. Doubt, written by John Patrick Shanley, throws its audience into the world of suspicion and mystery by setting us into the St. Nicholas Catholic Church and School in The Bronx, New York. Here, Sister Aloysius Bouvier (Tracy Callahan) and Sister James (Cylie Janiece) suspect the young and fun-spirited Father Brendan Flynn (Roger Dunbar) of inappropriate relations with a new student, 12-year-old Donald Muller. Produced by Johnny Hebda and Utah Repertory Theater Company, this is a play with a five-star cast that you won’t want to miss.

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“Innocence is only wisdom in a world without evil,” says Sister Aloysius, played by Tracy Callahan. Photo: IceWolf Photography

In the play’s press release, Director JC Carter says, “When you doubt a person, even their most innocent actions can seem suspect.” From the beginning, Father Flynn appeared to us as a loving, genuinely kind and witty priest. He not only helps the children while in church, but he also teaches them sports as part of the school’s curriculum. When Sister James starts noticing an oddity in Donald’s behavior, however, questions arise. She mentions this observation to Sister Aloysius, who immediately begins to create a plan to find the truth of the issue at hand. “That’s what confronts us in this play,” says Carter, “the power [that] suspicion can have in a closed environment like a Catholic parish and school.”

This Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award–winning show is impressive on its own, but with four top-notch actors in the mix, you have one brilliant show. The audience found it difficult to decide whom they thought was guilty. During the intermission, I heard some audience members claim that Flynn “molested the child without a doubt,” while others scoffed that “the Sisters were far too judgmental.” I believe this back-and-forth decision-making had much to do with the incredible performances by the cast. Dunbar as Father Flynn made for a convincing priest who was welcoming and caring. Though he started the show behind the pulpit, he eventually left it to walk closer to the audience and spoke directly to us, delivering a sermon filled with humor and enthusiasm. The usual depictions of a priest are strict, stern and conservative. Flynn was exactly the opposite. He had a bounce in his step, a smile on his face and he always talked to Sister James about how love is the most important thing about teaching children. On the other hand, Callahan couldn’t have played a more appropriate nun or a more concerned motherly figure. She embodied the figure of Justice and was determined to help Donald from any act of sexual violence, even if it meant losing her position as the principal of the school.

As the audience maneuvered their way through the performance trying to piece together alibis and evidence, we couldn’t help but take the position of poor Sister James, who couldn’t figure out which religious authority figure was in the right. Janiece plays the mediator perfectly, eventually breaking down from too much stress and too many secrets piling up with her in between. Later, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin (as the mother of Donald Muller) gave a mind-blowing performance and monologue, in which the conflict of the play becomes simultaneously more coherent and complicated—a piece of the play that you’ll just have to see to believe. I was completely in awe of each actor’s performance. They embodied their characters so well that even after the show, I was still suspicious of Father Flynn.

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Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin mind-blowing performance and monologue as Mrs. Muller both clarified and complicated Doubt‘s themes. Photo: IceWolf Photography

To encourage the feel of realism, set designer Cara Pomeroy created a simplistic yet beautiful masterpiece of a set that truly made me feel as though I was about to hear a sermon. “I wanted to take you to church,” Carter told me after the show. The set comprises three places: the pulpit, the principal’s office and a small garden. Behind the pulpit were beautiful stained glass windows that lit up whenever Father Flynn was preaching. The office, where the majority of the action took place, was modest and filled with Catholic imagery: a crucifix, religious texts, a picture of the Virgin and so on. Overall, the set felt so real that it only added to my fears for Donald if it were revealed that Father Flynn had indeed taken advantage of him.

There are so many intriguing themes in Doubt, it was difficult for me to keep up! Sister Aloysius insists that Sister James understand the difference between innocence and knowledge. “Innocence is only wisdom in a world without evil,” she says, not long after deciding that she would discover the truth of this problem. There is also the issue of gender roles and gender rules within the church and society. The Sisters cannot go to an Elder to discuss their suspicions of Father Flynn. Why? The Elder is also a man and likely to dismiss the topic. Sister James begs Sister Aloysius to tell someone, but Aloysius simply says, “There are only men here, and men run everything.” Later, when Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother have a conversation about her son, Mrs. Muller says straightforwardly, “You don’t tell my husband what to do—you stand in the back.” Doubt not only places the issues of child sexual abuse onto the stage: It also presents the problems with the sheer power men have in both church and societal affairs. Sister James and Sister Aloysius have only each other to go to in order to discover the truth, and to do this, they must go to the source of the problem itself: Father Flynn.

This play is a mixture of light humor with a dark concept. Suspenseful, heated and mysterious, Doubt takes its audience on a journey to discover the truth—not merely of the problem at hand, but also of the problems with gender inequality, male-dominated power within the church and the undeserved consequences of innocence. As Carter mentions in their press release, “The play is funny and suspenseful with so many layers, you’ll have to find a nearby coffee shop to discuss it afterwards.” Truer words were never said, as this is exactly what I did.

Doubt has three more performances left this upcoming weekend on March 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and March 20 at 3:00 p.m. Join Utah Repertory Theater Company and their incredible cast on their journey to discover the truth—and the prices you pay along the way.


Editor’s Note: The original version of this article listed the incorrect spelling for Utah Repertory Theater Company. The spelling has been corrected.

  • Blair Howell

    Thanks for this review! It’d be great if you could correct the name of the theater company. It’s Utah Repertory TheatER company, not TheatRE. (U.S./Associated Press spelling.)

    • SLUG Magazine

      Thanks for pointing out our error, Blair! We’ve made the correction in the article.