Review: Gamm’s ‘Doubt’ an Unquestioned Hit

by | May 15, 2024

Above: Benjamin Grills as Father Brendan Flynn and Phyllis Kay as Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Photo by Cat Laine

Truth proves more elusive than Bigfoot

The Gamm Theatre’s delightful season-ending production of the Tony Award-winning 2004 play Doubt: A Parable – a taut psychological drama concerning a potentially unhealthy relationship between a progressive parish priest and an altar boy – pins the viewer on a hook pulling at both sides without providing any better resolution than life itself usually offers.

This ambiguity is baked into the very nature of the situation, which involves a bullied minority boy who gets beaten at home, we are led to believe by the mother, for his homosexual tendencies and out of her husband’s general ill-humor. His private parochial school scholarship is his ticket out, and she’s not interested in rocking a leaky boat. 

The strict, stuck-in-her-ways headmistress already has an issue with the forward-thinking priest (remonstrating his long fingernails, of all things!) when one of her teachers says the priest spent unsupervised time with the boy, who returned with alcohol on his breath and acting funny. This “Mother Superior” doesn’t buy the priest’s explanation that the newly-appointed altar boy had snuck sacrament wine and then confessed. For his honesty, the priest said he offered to shield the boy from exposure, allowing him to remain an altar boy. 

The true nature of their meeting and whatever secrets or biases they hide are never revealed, and can only be guessed at with a healthy dose of humility. In this sense, Doubt recalls both David Mamet’s confidence game trust falls (particularly The Spanish Prisoner) and Jean Paul’s Sartre’s No Exit, which argues persuasively that hell is living with other people. In each example there’s precious little safe ground to stand on or from which to form a proper perspective, and that’s the point.

Originally hatched in a small off-Broadway black box theater, the play is tremendously static, a fact that would be entirely problematic were the language, characters and charged moral situations not able to fill that breach. The play also makes use of the priest’s sermons as a kind of soliloquy that feels in the opening scene like a direct aside to the audience, as it pointedly asks, “What do you do, when you aren’t sure,” pointing to that moral/ethical uncertainty as something we all share.

Director Rachel Walshe leans into the play’s spare, cerebral core, lighting the sermon asides in ways that set them off, almost like the window display porn of New York City’s flagship retail at Christmas. The actors hardly interact with the set, which seems to barely exist so much as a pen around Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Phillis Kay) and Father Brendan Flynn (Benjamin Grills) circle each other like animals.

The raw power dynamic is a key insight into the play. In a 2017 interview, Shanley talked about the competitive nature of modern discourse where, “in our perhaps excessive desire to win the argument, we go further than we feel true conviction about, and we find ourself on increasingly thin ice, or maybe even standing on air, like [Wiley] Coyote and the Road Runner.

“It’s about power. It’s not about ideas. It’s certainly not about the best idea in the room, and it’s a lesser thing than what we as human beings are capable of,” Shanley goes on to say, explaining that he wrote the play in the run up to the Iraqi war. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction, and then we went in and there weren’t any. I was watching all of these talk shows, with people arguing really confidently about why we had to invade, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is just an act of faith these people are actually offering.’”

Kay is particularly riveting as the stern and steady spoon that stirs the parochial school’s drink before her resolute facade crumbles in a moment of tremendous pathos. Flynn is also impressive as the simultaneous compassionate and condescending kind of male who plays the humble innocent right up to the moment he needs to bare his teeth, in a literally bitter/sweet role. The son’s mother Mrs. Muller (Lynsey Ford) is very convincing in her stage time and a fine foil to the wishy-washy Sister James whose pert, fresh-faced innocence is a great audience entry point to the story, mirroring their own, but her desire to believe what she’s told and not cause trouble soon makes her a willing stooge. 

After two rather long Gamm productions of Shakespeare and Albee, this 90-minute, one-act play is a bracing Aqua Velva slap across the face, amplified by the lack of resolution. The fact that it’s so crisply acted and delivered does a very effective job of disguising the aforementioned stage stagnancy in all but a couple moments. Mostly they circle the stage, literally and figuratively stalking each other in keeping with the power dynamic at play. 

The overwhelming feeling walking out is how fragile our narratives and beliefs are, shaped as much by what we want to believe as what we should. In searching for truth, we probably don’t give enough weight to the multiplicity of perspectives and motivations. Gamm Theatre captures that dynamic perfectly leaving the audience looking for guidance where none is forthcoming, like answers from God.

For his own part, Shanley described himself as feeling like all of the characters and none of them when he wrote the play, bounding from one perspective to the other with equal weight, per his prior predilections.

“If I’m listening to a bunch of compelling people talk about what they believe, and they hold different points of view, the longer they talk, the more I come around to their point of view. And then, when the next person talks, and expresses well another point of view, I start to find myself agreeing with them,” Shanley say. “And, you know, the question comes, ‘How can you agree with oppositional forces with ideas?’… That’s one of the reasons I’m a playwright.” 

Doubt, A Parable runs now-June 2 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, R.I.
Tickets: 401-723-4266 or gammtheatre.org/doubt. $55-$65; Student $20; Rush $30; Pay-What-You-Wish Fridays; Discounts for groups of 10; Additional discounts at gammtheatre.org/discounts.

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Marie Hennedy
Marie Hennedy
May 17, 2024 1:15 pm

Thank you for this fine review! I suspect I’ve never really seen this play before….

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