By BRUCE DENNILL
Doubt: A Parable / Directed by James Cuningham / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton
Daphne Kuhn’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece begins with a monologue that alerts audiences to two things: firstly, this is not a powder-puff piece, and secondly, the audience will be expected to form an opinion. To
Shanley’s writing is tight and taut, and his crisp, clean dialogue and clever, uncluttered set-ups give an intimate, intellectual piece a power beyond the compact nature of the play (a cast of four, one of whom is barely on stage, and a single set.
James Cuningham’s direction is a notable strength of the piece. He strips down every set-piece to its bare essentials, including getting his actors to act less and yet convey more. Statements are made through a clenched fist here, a flinch at a sudden move there and a silent stare at an unseen (by the audience) protagonist whose actions are cause for debate. Shanley hasn’t included any dead wood in his script, and Cuningham ensures that this careful pruning is reflected in the action on stage.
Fiona Ramsay as Sister Aloysius – a remarkable character and a delicious, meaty role – is at her formidable best. The aged headmistress of a convent school, Aloysius has seen it all and controlled most of it by sheer force of will, coupled with a fierce discipline that results in what often seems like narrow-mindedness. She is the boss and mentor of a young teacher and fellow nun, Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) who prefers to build relationships rather than batter people into agreeing to a prescribed perspective. Sister Aloysius instructs her colleague to be harder, to trust less and to expect the worst in people. The advice is given with a view to helping the younger woman to better handle the pressures of working with difficult students, but the outcome is that James becomes more apprehensive, less sure of herself and others. Ramos-Violante, who can be brassy and imposing when a role requires it, is wonderfully restrained here, her character a pawn in a story that reaches far beyond the grounds of the school where she works.
In this atmosphere, the actions of another colleague, Father Flynn (James MacEwan; also a strong performance) arouse suspicion, and Sister Aloysius’ reaction to a perceived offence on his part is what will get audiences to ask several tough questions, and then become sceptical of their own assessments.
It’s this pathway that makes Doubt: A Parable such a potent work: there are very distinct questions but no clear answers, and the very lack of resolution is infinitely more satisfying, but more difficult to process, than the event-investigation-comeuppance curve of a more traditional story.
Setting the story in the Church (though cleverly placing it at a slightly peripheral point, allowing the characters to be more of a focus than the traditions and beliefs they espouse) brings the story into the current affairs space – sadly, Catholic priests behaving inappropriately with children is a narrative repeated too often to be ignored. This support from a source outside of the theatre yet known to the audience means that Shanley and this production’s cast and director can rely on their audiences having a certain range of responses to actions that are only suggested. This is both a luxury – manipulating the mood of the crowd as a whole is relatively easier – and a challenge, as characters perceived as both likeable and fallible require a greater level of sophistication to play.
Audiences will find themselves picking a side and then switching teams – particularly when Mwenya Kabwe’s intense, fatalistic Mrs Muller (a small supporting role, but as striking and important in this context as Jack Nicholson’s plaudits-stealing “You can’t handle the truth!” cameo in A Few Good Men) stirs things up with some uncomfortable new perspectives late on in the day.
Doubt – as an emotion – is usually considered a negative thing. As the theme of this play, it causes both characters and audience members to consider the dangers that arise from superficial evaluations of complex situations. If people leave the theatre uncertain of how they feel about the outcome of the piece, the play has probably hit its mark.