I’m not sure how much it costs to run a theatre, but the Empire Arts Center is clearly determined to get their money’s worth. A year or so ago, they converted their offstage storage and prep area into an impromptu performance space for their popular “Backstage Series,” and recently the EAC debuted their newest performance space: Theatre E, a black box theatre located downstairs near the dressing rooms. More on the space later; to christen this new location, the Empire Theatre Company presented Doubt: A Parable, written by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Abby Schoenborn (if you didn’t see our profile of Abby, you can catch that HERE).
Doubt is a tight, tense little show that deals with issues of faith and determination, and the doubts that can plague you when forced to move forward without solid proof. It is set in a Catholic school in the 1960s, where the doubts of the individuals at St. Nicholas’ in the Bronx are set against the larger cultural turmoil of the time. Sister Aloysius (Beth Carlson), a devout and ambitious nun of a certain age, has taken a strange moment between Father Brendan Flynn (Darin Kerr) and one of his students as proof that Flynn is using his position to engage in “improper conduct” with his vulnerable charges. Sister Aloysius believes that a new student, the lone black child in the school, may be Father Flynn’s newest target; in an attempt to gain a confession, Aloysius enlists the aid of young and exuberant Sister James (Stephanie Kurtz), an expressive soul that Aloysius hopes to mold into a stronger but more distant educator.
The casting for the show is absolutely pitch perfect. Carlson’s Sister Aloysius is a frigid ice queen, filled with ambition; though she seems unable to engage with the students on a personal level (or perhaps, considers herself above doing so as an authority figure), her dogged pursuit of Father Flynn is, at least on the surface, motivated by her concern for the safety of the students. She is unshakeable, and Carlson’s whiskey-soaked voice delivers Aloysius’ thinly disguised jabs with strength and precision. She creates a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of this complicated character, cold and unlikable in most scenes while also strangely sympathetic; when the final scene comes with Aloysius victorious but shaken, finally confessing her doubts to a more subdued and world-weary Sister James, Carlson channels the very best of Bette Davis, her large eyes wet and darting back and forth as though her mind itself is pacing, her hard exterior crumbling under the consequences of her unwavering determination.
Kerr’s Father Flynn is jovial and charismatic next to Aloysius’ detached coolness, but he’s just a bit too slick, a little too aware of how the system works, for him to be completely trustworthy. In a short sermon that punctuates the middle of Aloysius’ pursuit of the truth behind Father Flynn’s relationship with the young black student, Flynn tells a story about a woman who gossips and then asks to be forgiven. The story ends with a pointed condemnation of the woman, clearly meant to be a statement to Sister Aloysius, and feels more mean-spirited than instructional in the moment’s context. There is always something a little bit off about Father Flynn, and though the script does not contain enough clear evidence one way or another as to whether or not Flynn is guilty, he is visibly shaken when Aloysius tells him that she has contacted the nuns at his former post. Aloysius admits to Sister James later that no such call was ever made, but she is astute in her observation that Father Flynn’s panic when faced with the prospect of this conversation is almost a confession of sorts (though a confession of what is open to interpretation).
Kurtz’ Sister James is also an example of exemplary casting: she begins the show with an air of openness and progressive zeal for education: she wants to develop real relationships with her students and wants them to be engaged in their learning. She is the bright, compassionate teacher many of us wish we had in our formative years; it is these qualities of openness and nurturance that have caught Sister Aloysius’ attention, and that she hopes to be able to “correct.” As the show progresses, Sister James is caught between Aloysius and Flynn and finds her loyalties divided. She has neither the determination of Aloysius or the smirking self-assurance of Flynn. Siding with Flynn but plagued by doubts, her journey in the show is from innocence to experience and though she doesn’t support Aloysius’ accusations, she begins to see how her icy realism has lead her to as high a position of power as a woman can achieve within the patriarchal Catholic system. In fact, the warm and nurturing qualities Aloysius criticizes in Sister James are the types of qualities that are pointed out as “evidence” that women are not as fit as men for positions of power: compassionate, emotional, nurturing, and the like.
Although she only appears in one scene, Mara Rydell has some of the most powerful moments of the show playing Mrs. Muller, the mother of the young boy Aloysius suspects is being molested by Flynn. Aloysius calls her in for a meeting at the school, hoping to get more evidence for her investigation or to get Mrs. Muller as an ally, but the meeting quickly goes out of her control when Mrs. Muller indicates that she feels her son might be “that way.” She further shocks Aloysius by stating that if something is going on between Flynn and her son, at least her son has someone who is showing him compassion, protecting him from the predatory world of adolescent boys. The scene is uncomfortable and heart-breaking, and you can see the conflict on Rydell’s face as she confronts Aloysius. Rydell brings a depth to this short exchange that is rarely seen on the community theater stage.
Before I give a further comment on the script and the show itself, this is a good time to explore the space and how it interacts with the production. To say that the space could be difficult to use properly is an understatement. It’s a bit persnickety. The room is long and narrow and doesn’t automatically lend itself to theatrical productions (the space is also intended as a potential gallery space and this purpose seems much more suitable). The setup for Doubt allowed only a sparse 60 seats, and only that many if you didn’t mind getting a little up close and personal with your neighbors. There are pipes in the ceiling and during the production the sound of water rushing provided an unintentional backdrop to one of the scenes.
All that being said, the closeness of the space actually worked fairly well with this particular production: the play is a tense little drama (just over an hour, with no intermission) and the proximity of the actors to the audience helped create this claustrophobic atmosphere where the drama between Aloysius and Flynn is palatable, almost inescapable. Previous ETC productions, like The Office Plays, have been dwarfed by the large proscenium of the main stage and smaller dramas like this play better in smaller, more intimate spaces. It becomes a bit of a Goldilocks experience: this space is too big, this space is to small; obviously with community-based theatrical productions, resources can be scarce and there is a “make do” attitude that can create truly special experiences and Theatre E is a perfect example. As long as projects are carefully selected, this space can be a wonderful creative outlet for the local theatre scene.
So, the big question: did he do it? The script itself doesn’t give a clear indication one way or another but I think there is a third possible reading that helps to tie the whole show together. Flynn seems completely earnest in his denial of any wrongdoing with the Muller boy (this is partially Kerr’s portrayal but also the dialogue presented by Shanley) but yet he is petrified by the idea that Sister Aloysius may have violated the chain of command and, instead of talking directly to the parish priest, spoken with one of the nuns. With this sense of palpable fear, this must indicate his guilt, right? Not necessarily. I believe that the “clues” in the script are pointing somewhere else: that Flynn is a closeted homosexual and has taken a special interest in the young Muller boy not for sexual reasons but to act as a protector for someone he may see as a kindred spirit. This reading allows for a sincere denial of Sister Aloysius’ accusations while also explaining the stark fear at her assertion that she has investigated his previous assignment. Set in 1964, 5 years before the Stonewall Riots, the cultural milieu is not only one of charged racial politics but also of great persecution and repression of those with non-normative sexual identities.
It will be interesting to see this new performance/exhibition space “earn its keep” as part of the various offerings available at the ever-evolving Empire Arts Center; stay tuned for announcements on the World of Champagne of upcoming events. Up next for the Empire Theatre Company is The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, a musical extravaganza of truly white trash proportions, directed by The Full Monty director Casey Paradies and featuring performances by Doubt director Abby Schoenborn, Amy Driscoll, Misty Koop, Leah Bieberdorf, Jared Kinney, and C. J. Leigh.
This is a photo of director Abby Schoenborn, on set. Just because. That is all.
Tags: Abby Schoenborn, Amy Driscoll, Backstage Project, Beth Carlson, Bette Davis, C. J. Leigh, Cabaret, Casey Paradies, Catholic Priest, child molestation, Church Scandal, Darin Kerr, Doubt, Doubt A Parable, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater Company, Empire Theatre Company, Exhibition Space, Father Flynn, Gallery Space, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jared Kinney, John Patrick Shanley, Leah Bieberdorf, Mara Rydell, Miss Jaye, Misty Koop, Performance Space, Sister Aloysius, Sister James, Stefanie Kurtz, Theatre E, Theatre Em Theater E, World of Champagne