Owen Mac Carthaigh’s simple, fractured, towering set with its imposing crucifix set a precedent for the performance to come, in Decadent Theatre Company’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt – A Parable. Though small in stature Sister Aloysius, played staunchly by Brid Ni Neachtain,looms large over the Catholic school she runs in The Bronx in New York City. She is unflinching in her attitude to how her teachers should deal with the young student boys, telling Sister James, played by Seona Tully, that “The heart must be warm but the wits must be cold”.
Fr. Flynn’s warm smile in his opening ceremony prompted a lady in the audience to gush “Isn’t he sweet?” Sister Aloysius is unconvinced as Sister James tells her of her suspicions that he gave alcohol to one of the boys and sexually abused him. We are eavesdroppers for a series of private meetings and conversations between these three characters as they sway our feelings about his guilt. Sister Aloysius’ unflinching nature comes through once again in her decision that Fr. Flynn, played by Diarmuid de Faoite,is guilty despite his protestations, and Sister James’ belief in his innocence.
In any play if something is in there, it must have relevance. The mention of the fact that Sister Aloysius was once married but lost her husband in World War II must therefore be relevant. It was very common for single women left alone at that time to enter into convents. Perhaps she was once a kind hearted lady but had to harden her heart to survive in a harsh, male-dominated world. So when confronted with the possibility that even if she is right and it is still the least advantageous stand for her to take for the parties involved, she refuses to be swayed.
This play throws light on the failings of a rigid system of rules which makes no allowance for all the complicated facets of real situations. Sister Aloysius gets everything she wants in the end but at the price of her credibility. She collapses onto Sister James’ shoulder in anguished self-doubt about her convictions. The fractured set towering above her, symbolising the system upon which she based her strength, echoes her crumbling state of mind.
They spoke strongly and clearly in the way I would imagine their characters were taught to do in their institutional training. But they sounded very theatrical rather than how the characters would have actually spoken to each other. Sister Aloysius’ bellowing voice often sounded more declamatory towards the audience than controlling towards those she was superior to. Her final admission of doubt to Sister James was as abrupt and decisive as all of her aggressive actions and emotions throughout the play. This was the moment where we see her dogged self-belief crumbling – it called for a much longer moment of inner turmoil to be displayed. I felt had the play had reason to continue, she would have just as quickly snapped back into her old, familiar, stony demeanour.
The standout performance for me was by Jacqueline Boatswain as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy suspected to have been abused. She portrayed, in a very restrained manner, so many conflicting emotions held together with steely practicality, in her voice, face and body language. And the set changes were very cleverly executed, to an authoritatively ponderous soundtrack, by ‘characters’ rather than stagehands in black clothing.