The District Theatre's Doubt may be the most exceptionally performed, strongly directed production I've yet seen in the Quad Cities. Saturday night's flawless performance left me in awe, particularly for the production's perfect casting, and for how well director James Fairchild highlights playwright John Patrick Shanley's humor.
Set in 1964 in a Catholic church and school in the Bronx, Shanley's story concerns Sister Aloysius Beauvier's attempts to remove Father Brendan Flynn from the institution, accusing him of improper conduct with an eighth-grade boy who is also their only black student. Employing the help of Sister James, the boy's teacher, Sister Beauvier sets into motion a plot to confirm her speculations - though it's clear that the personal conviction behind her assumptions is proof enough for her.
Susan Perrin-Sallak is remarkably formidable as Sister Aloysius. It's apparent that her principal's skepticism has erased the woman's compassion, and yet the actor makes the humor in her lines clear as well, not by speaking as if in jest, but by being emphatic in her inflections when expressing disdain, as when she voices disgust over a student wearing lipstick while depicting the Virgin Mary. To be clear, Perrin-Sallak's Sister Aloysius is dauntingly stern, but it's this sternness, and the severity of her prudish opinions, that also provides the amusement in her performance.
Jason Platt counters Perrin-Sallak with his tender, thoughtful, and caring Father Flynn. Opening the play with a sermon, Platt's preaching, and the sincerity in his delivery, comes across as totally believable. And the actor's comedic gifts are also laudable, particularly as he's instructing his students on free throws in basketball, using humorous self-awareness and body language to entertain both the (unseen) boys and Doubt's audience. Platt's skills are on especially superb display in the scene in which Sister Aloysius initially confronts Flynn after he's spoken privately with the eighth-grader. Once Sister Aloysius' intentions are clear, Platt switches from an amicable stance to an angry one when speaking to his accuser, all the while offering softer, inquisitive looks while asking Sister James exactly what she saw. And the final confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn is a stunner for both of Doubt's leads, as Perrin-Sallak's principal grows colder in her refusal to back down, while Platt's priest holds his own through his defensive rage.
As Sister James, Cara Chumbley exudes innocence, joy, and eagerness in her character's teaching profession, and delivers a portrayal just as wonderful as, but worlds removed from, her noteworthy turn as the boisterous Maureen in the District Theatre's Rent earlier this year. Chumbley is particularly outstanding in the play's later scenes, when she incorporates an effectively troubled look with furrowed brow as her young nun becomes more cold in her thinking, and her induced skepticism of Father Flynn begins to destroy her innocence.
Rounding out Doubt's cast, Antoinette Holman offers a jaw-dropping performance as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the possibly abused student. Called in to discuss the matter with Sister Aloysius, Holman's demeanor is reflective of the time period's racial hierarchy, offering undertones of cautiousness and polite respect; she never quite looks into the principal's eyes, which also reflects the character's experiences at home, being "put in her place" by her presumably violent husband. Holman's attitude changes, however, as Mrs. Muller begins defending her son - arguing that it's him and not the priest whom Sister Aloysius seems to be accusing of wrongdoing - before returning to her careful politeness. It's a remarkably nuanced depiction.
With its simple yet effective set delineating three separate playing areas - the principal's office, the garden, and the church pulpit - in the District Theatre's intimate space, the performances are the true focus of this rendition of Doubt, as they rightfully they should be. This production deserves to go down as one of the theatre's greatest triumphs.
Doubt runs at the District Theatre (1611 Second Avenue, Rock Island) through June 16, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.