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Review: A stirring dance with the notion of 'Doubt'

"Doubt, a Parable" begins as an ecclesiastical did-he or didn't-he mystery and quickly deepens into a finely wrought meditation on the nature of truth, certainty, duty and morality. But that description makes it sound more austere than it is, and crankier.

"Doubt," by John Patrick Shanley, is a ripping little drama. Those who see the tight new production that opened Friday night at Camelot Theatre in Talent will understand why the play won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in its 2005 Broadway run.

Sister Aloysius (Livia Genise), the principal of St. Nicholas School, begins as a caricature of the rigid, knuckle-rapping nun of a thousand jokes. Genise's rigid posture, her steely expressions and her tightly controlled voice all say: wound too tight.

She summons to the principal's office Sister James (Rose Passione), a friendly young nun whose idealism is still intact, to investigate her hunch — for that's all it is — that Father Flynn is crossing the line.

Her alarms have gone off at the attention the priest is paying to an eighth-grade boy who also happens to be the class's only African-American student.

If the priest is sexually abusing the boy, it's a trespass on his part that, while famously familiar today, was unthinkable in 1964. Sister Aloysius functions in the traditional villain's role by instigating the action.

But she also functions as the detective in a fast-moving mystery, relentlessly pursuing her prey.

Her goal is not a villain's self-aggrandizement but the protection of the innocent and punishment of the guilty.

Father Flynn (Doug Warner) embodies the heady spirit of change brought to the Roman Catholic world by Vatican II under Pope John XXIII, which was still going strong in 1964, the time in which "Doubt" is set in a Catholic grade school in The Bronx. The Church has a long tradition that the letter of its law should not kill the spirit, and it's here that Father Flynn casts his lot.

"Can't we have a friendlier, more accessible church?" he asks in the ecumenical spirit of the early 1960s.

As priest and nun clash, even the minutiae of daily life become clues in a cat-and-mouse game. Father Flynn takes three lumps of sugar in his tea? Could be a weakness, a certain voluptuousness, of character. Sister Aloysius objects to adding the song "Frosty the Snowman" (which she finds disturbing, with its pagan practices) to the Christmas pageant along with the hymns. She's an authoritarian personality who sees sin everywhere.

In one of two sermons Flynn gives that interrupt and comment on the play's action, which unfolds mostly in dialog, he dances around the notion of doubt.

"The truth makes for a bad sermon," he says. "It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion."

But this is not that kind of truth. He either abused the boy or he didn't. There is no gray area. Is he incriminating himself here, like a serial killer musing over his crime scene?

He seems like a good, reasonable man. But he switches gears when Sister Aloysius hones in on him, going from appeals to reason to pulling rank to virtual pleading.

Or maybe there is, if not a gray area, other concerns. The boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (Jade Chavis Watt) brings to a meeting with Sister Aloysius a perspective different from either the sister's or the father's.

Shanley's writing is first rate. In almost every line of dialog we're conscious of each character wanting something very badly indeed. And each scene develops or reveals new depths of character.

Don Matthews' direction underscores Shanley's strategy of playing mix-and-match with the power relationships of the day. Nuns are subservient to priests. But it is Sister Aloysius who is the authority figure, and Father Flynn the young rebel seeking put a more human face on the Church.

Genise and Warner give the kind of nuanced performances you'd expect of a couple of old pros. Genise has several powerful moments, including one in which she simply passes her hand over her desk with a certain hesitation, suggesting perhaps a chink in the certainty of her armor.

In the script, Flynn is younger than the nun, while Genise and Warner play from the same generation. This perhaps tilts the power balance a bit to the priest. But Warner plays Flynn with a complex mix of humanity, hubris and outrage, and the dance between the two escalates with frightening speed.

Passione and Watt give terrific supporting performances in roles that demand some depth and offer some surprises. Sister James changes as she's pulled between priest and nun like a satellite wobbling in its orbit. And Mrs. Muller enters the fray relatively late, like a pinch hitter in a playoff game, and quickly introduces a new, highly emotional angle on the central conflict.

Shanley refuses to come down on anybody's side and in the end makes it clear that there's no irony in the play's title. The takeaway, he suggests, is that doubt may be less a failure of faith than the beginning of some kind of wisdom.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.