Chadron State Theatre’s production is well-played all around. The cast members’ memorable performances leave the audience in the perfect state of disarray the playwright intended.
Mason Quinn, senior of Cheyenne, Wyo., plays the priest, Father Brendan Flynn, a new addition to St. Nicholas Catholic Church and School. Flynn’s sermon concerning doubt sets up the major conflict of the play. Flynn admonishes the audience—his putative parishioners—that they are not alone in doubting themselves or others.
“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” Flynn says.
Quinn’s Flynn is clearly a beloved and progressive parish priest, but these qualities are only established in contrast to his foil. Shalee Jones, senior of Crawford, plays the matriarchal Sister Aloysius, principal of the school and arbiter of taste for the students and sisters she oversees.
Aloysius is not a progressive woman. She hates ballpoint pens because they cause students to bear down on the page and write sloppily. And she derides Sister James, played by Amber Nightingale, senior of Morrill, for being too interested in her students, and too excited about teaching history.
Even when Aloysius confiscates a transistor radio from a student, and we later see her listening to it in her office—a glimmer of levity perhaps? But no, her listening turns out to be utilitarian. She only listens to the news, because she detests music.
Shanley hammers home a one-dimensionality in Aloysius. She has no doubts about who she is, the job she does, and how she must teach the others around her to be. Jones delivers her voluble lines quickly and with conviction.
Early on she tells James, “Wits must be cold. Children should be uncomfortable around you.”
At the close of this conversation, Aloysius asks James, “Is something the matter?”
James replies, “I don’t think so.”
Aloysius concludes, “nothing is the matter.”
Despite the outward show of certainty, a small crack begins to appear in Aloysius tough exterior. After saying nothing is the matter, she warns James to be alert about Father Flynn. Aloysius is wary because Flynn has befriended Donald Muller, a boy new to the school, and its only black student.
Despite being set in 1964, the play is incredibly timely owing to the rash of scandals relating to priests sexually abusing boys that have come to light in the last decade. However, living up to its title, Shanley’s play never gives a concrete answer as to whether Flynn has crossed the line.
Quinn has shown his skill playing many tormented characters, and even an outright sexual predator, in previous Black Box productions. But with this portrayal, Quinn shows nothing to indicate that Father Flynn is a monster. Quinn plays the priest with an overwhelmingly believable innocence.
However, in the early conversations Aloysius has with James, it becomes clear that she has been brewing a deep dislike for Flynn virtually from the moment he set foot at St. Nicholas. At one point, Flynn enters her office and commences to write notes for his next sermon with a ballpoint pen, two scenes after Aloysius delivers her diatribe against them.
Jones goes to great lengths to make her Aloysius brim with outrage, while maintaining a calm outward demeanor. Her outbursts are few and often over a small detail. When Flynn asks for three lumps of sugar in his tea, she blusters “Three?!” and then is quiet again.
Though the primary characters are Flynn and Aloysius, the conflict of the play flows from the masterful incompetence of Nightingale’s Sister James. Another veteran of CSC Theatre productions, Nightingale brings to life a sister struggling with tremendous self-doubt. At first, her James is putty in Aloysius’ hands, clinging to all the harshness and suspicion the more experienced sister teaches her. It is out of Sister James’ recently cultivated alertness that Aloysius’ distaste for Flynn grows into the “certainty” that he abused Donald Muller.
However, when Aloysius remains certain despite Flynn’s convincing claims to the contrary and his winning over of James’ trust, she moves to find another cohort to support her condemnation. Enter Le’Chere Campbell, freshman of Bellevue, as Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller.
Though Campbell is a new face for CSC Theatre, she brings a subtle but powerful performance as Mrs. Muller. Campbell brings to life the difficulties that many blacks endured in the 1960s. Her response to the allegations is shocking, but has its own logic.
The story unravels quickly after Aloysius doesn’t get the support she hoped for from Mrs. Muller or the monsignor of St. Nicholas.
The audience is left to make its own judgements, and the question remains: was Aloysius right about Flynn? As the lights fade to blackness, Aloysius clings to Sister James and through tears, she mutters, “I have doubts. I have such doubts.”
“Doubt” opens at 7 p.m. with shows today, Friday, Saturday, and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday.
The Black Box theatre is located on the second floor of Memorial Hall.
To reserve tickets call the box office at 432-6207 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.