Jessica Stratton, Melissa McBain, and Jeremy Mahr in DoubtThere's a special thrill you get from a stage work that seems not just beautifully, but perfectly cast, and following the curtain call for the Green Room's Friday-evening presentation of Doubt: A Parable - currently playing at the Harrison Hilltop Theatre - that thrill stuck with me for the rest of the night, and into the next day.

That's not to suggest that the performers in director Tyson Danner's production are the only conceivable choices for their roles; one of the many joys of playwright John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize winner is that, within its tightly knit structure, Doubt's four characters appear endlessly (albeit subtly) malleable, and open to any number of physical types and interpretations. You could, therefore, easily imagine others in the roles enacted by Melissa McBain, Jeremy Mahr, Jessica Sheridan (nee Stratton), and Shellie Moore Guy. It's just that you couldn't conceivably want to.

Any production that opens with Mahr delivering a five-minute monologue is, after all, already doing something right. The actor plays Father Brendan Flynn, newly employed in the Bronx's St. Nicholas Church School, circa 1964, with Shanley fashioning his introductory speech as an earnest yet empathetic sermon contemplating the necessity of doubt. And Father Flynn's words will continue to echo throughout the play's next 90 minutes, after a young teacher, Sister James (Sheridan), informs the grim-faced principal, Sister Aloysius (McBain), of a possible impropriety between the priest and a 12-year-old student, the first African American enrolled at St. Nicholas. Sister Aloysius is dogmatically certain of the priest's guilt, Father Flynn asserts his innocence, and Sister James and the audience members are left not knowing what to think. Yes, Father Flynn appears rational and good-humored, and Sister Aloysius hateful and unfair, but does that necessarily place him above suspicion, or make her wrong?

In short, Doubt is a parochial drama, a mystery, a reflection on faith and skepticism, and, with all due deference to its subject matter, probably the most wildly enjoyable play ever to address the subject of presumed child abuse. (Happily, Shanley provides laughs here to equal those earned in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck.) Danner paces the escalating intensity with unobtrusive assuredness, but he earns his highest praise for also keeping its spirit so light; by offering Shanley's characters as recognizable human beings rather than thematic mouthpieces, he ensures that the show is forceful, but never oppressive. Not that, with this cast, there was likely to be much danger of that.

Melissa McBain and Jeremy Mahr in DoubtI'm sure she's busy and all, but is there any way we could get Melissa McBain on stage with more frequency than we do? (Her most recent local-theatre appearance was in New Ground Theatre's short-play compilation Living Here, back in the summer of 2007.) Revealing the cracks in seemingly impenetrable armor and discovering the humor in abject humorlessness, the performer gives masterful insight into the perils inherent in unwavering belief, and she's as funny as she is frightening. Yet there's also a lyrical quality to McBain's acting here - a tendency to direct her musings and suppositions to the heavens, as if in direct communication with God - that makes her not just believable, but nearly ethereal. It's a continually strong, inspiring portrayal.

For much of his role, Mahr is McBain's temperamental opposite, as relaxed and engaging as she is coiled and unyielding. (He's particularly wonderful in his comically underplayed reactions to Sister Aloysius' stoicism.) But the brilliance in Mahr's work lies in its fascinating contradictions; friendly though he appears, he's also guarded and rather intimidating, and seems to take unusual, if delicate, delight in belittling the principal in front of Sister James. You never know exactly where you stand with Father Flynn, which is just what Shanley's conception requires, and as Doubt progresses, Mahr - in a performance of understated excellence - grows almost hypnotically inscrutable.

At one point, Father Flynn tells Sister James, "I can look at your face and know your philosophy: kindness." And Sheridan radiates such exquisite kindness in the role - along with such exquisite confusion, nuance, and depth of feeling - that, without a hint of effort, she emerges as the heart of the piece. (Sheridan's big scene here, featuring Sister James' memorable "I like Frosty the Snowman!" declaration, is a true heartbreaker.) Meanwhile, Guy is allowed roughly 10 minutes of stage time as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the potentially abused boy, and the performer's years as a renowned local storyteller pay off stunningly well here; speaking with a quiet ache and impassioned dignity, her cadences and gently determined readings reveal the rocky road to acceptance Mrs. Muller has been forced to travel. If Stratton is the play's heart, Guy is its uncontestable soul.

These are miraculous performances in a rather miraculous piece of drama, and one that benefits hugely from being performed sans intermission, as it's the sort of enthralling production you don't want to escape from even to briefly stretch your legs. As explorations of human frailty go, the Green Room's Doubt is positively divine.


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