Hannah McCann Naoné Carrel
Doubt: a parable by John Patrick Shanley. Free Rain Theatre Company, directed by Cate Clelland at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, April 13-29, 2012
Reviewed by Frank McKone
It’s a great pleasure to see a risky piece of theatre done well.
You may ask why a Pultizer Prize winner (2005) could be called risky. When it’s all about two people who have an argument. You might think an argument would be dramatic, but not unless the characters come to a new understanding and change their position. In this play only a side character, the young teacher Sister James (Hannah McCann), takes a step towards greater maturity, while the central characters – Sister Aloysius (Naoné Carrel) and Father Flynn (Jarrad West) - remain at the end as they were at the beginning. The only other character – the mother of the Latino boy at the centre of the story, Mrs Ruiz (Ronnie Flor) – comes to the Principal’s office ready to breathe fire, and leaves in full flame.
And what’s more challenging is that when we have watched the argument for 90 minutes, we can’t decide who won or what the truth was. And even worse, there’s absolutely no action. Just talk – even sermons!
The story behind the talk is quite simple. The Principal expects the inexperienced teacher to tell her of anything she, the teacher, is not sure about. The teacher reports that Father Flynn had taken a vulnerable recent arrival – the only boy in this Bronx school who was not Irish or Italian – for a private talk, and the boy had seemed disturbed when he returned to the classroom. The Principal, suspicious that the boy had been molested, goes outside the rules – the Catholic ‘chain of command’ – which places men in charge of the women. She confronts Father Flynn directly and uses subterfuge to put him in a position where he has no choice but to resign. We learn, though, at the very end, that the Bishop not only did not accept the Principal’s accusation, but covered up by promoting Flynn to a higher position in another parish, with its school full of vulnerable boys.
So the story is, as the author has called it, a parable. A very model of a post-modern parable in which nothing can be proven either way, yet we feel that the Principal was right to take action to protect her pupils despite her admitting finally that she had her doubts. Any doubts we had about Father Flynn’s behaviour were swept aside by the Bishop’s promoting him – yet the truth could have been that the Bishop was correct to protect his subordinate’s career against unsubstantiated accusations.
So how was this production done well? By focussing on simplicity, in the stage design and the acting. By not being afraid to use disciplined silences to allow us to think through the implications of what was being said and how each character was reacting. The drama was happening in our minds, established by the opening sermon where Father Flynn spoke directly to us in the congregation. The writing is good, but quality presentation is needed to make it work on stage.
Each of the actors made sure that we were made aware of the motivation they had for saying what they did, for not saying what they might have, and for being silent when nothing might be said. Each took up the challenge, and took us along with them.
This made a highly satisfying piece of theatre, a great pleasure to experience, even though it revealed the awful side of the rigid male-dominated religious system. Set in New York in the 1960s, shortly after the assassination of the Catholic President John F Kennedy, the play is not only still relevant today for the issue in the story (as we are now seeing in Victoria where a full inquiry into the abuse of children by priests is being seriously mooted), but is universal in its concern that we often cannot not take action despite never being able to prove the truth.
Cate Clelland and her team have taken the risk, kept their nerve throughout, focussed on the universal, and succeeded brilliantly.
Ronnie Flor Jarrad West