No "Doubt" about it at Oldcastle
Shanley directed that production, and his troupe's performance brought home an age-old stage reality: a brilliant script will set up actors for success - if they grab hold of it.
Judging by Oldcastle Theatre Company's opening of "Doubt: A Parable," directed by co-founder and artistic director Eric Peterson, its cast has a death grip on Shanley's work.
The story finds us in 1964, at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. President Kennedy is recently assassinated, and the civil rights era is brewing on the streets, and in America's conscience.
There, school principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Christine Decker) becomes concerned when an 8th grade teacher, the young and idealistic Sister James (Meredith Meurs) calls attention to an ambiguous relationship between the parish priest, progressive Father Flynn (Tim Dugan) and Donald Muller, the school's first black student.
With the hot-button issues of child sexual abuse, race relations, and faith all hanging in the balance, events take more twists and turns as innuendo darts back and forth between the characters. Donald's mother Mrs. Muller (Nehassaiu deGannes) also enters the fray to mix it up with Sister Aloysius - a scene worth the price of admission alone.
Through this maelstrom, the players excelled.
A former Oldcastle "Tuesdays with Morrie" favorite, the Shakespearian Dugan convincingly made the shift to a young and handsome priest from Shanley's original of a middle-aged Father Flynn. His sermons to the congregation on doubt and gossip - aptly and adroitly directed to the audience - were powerful reminders of the human spirit's grapple with both faith and folly. Dugan's presence and bearing were impeccable.
Meurs, who delighted Oldcastle audiences last season in the comedy "Fox on the Fairway," brought those same talents to the dramatic end of the acting spectrum. Her core belief was never in question, but her shift in and out of the doubt created by Sister Aloysius was a subtle rollercoaster of acting not to be missed.
Did deGannes steal the show? It's a difficult trick when only on stage for a brief period, but she was very close. Her Mrs. Muller was not only eerily on target in the 1960s, but also a moral compass into so many larger issues taken down to the grass roots level of a mother wanting the best for her son.
As unthinkable as some of Mrs. Muller's behavior may seem to contemporary sensibilities, deGannes has many of us nodding in agreement with every voice quiver, and every dart of her eyes - where we find a mirror into the soul of an entire generation.
Finally, Oldcastle veteran Decker pulled out all the stops. The way she pursed her lips with each syllable kept us coming back to her side, just when Father Flynn or Sister James had us convinced otherwise.
Sister Aloysius' suspicions, cynicism, and dogmatism flourished in Decker, who at once made us assured and uncomfortable with her Machiavellian approach to the ethics of humanity.
Richard Howe has become a master of set design; the man makes wood look like granite. Costumes by Jennifer Cullen and Amanda Garcia, especially Mrs. Muller's outfit, were solid period representations.
Lights by David V. Groupe excelled; the sermon spotlights and scene-shift fades were perfect. Cory Wheat's sound remained capably executed, and Gary Allan Poe's stage management is a crisp study in timing and organization.
Shanley's message, packaged in this recognizable take, cut to some of our most visceral inclinations. How can we know something for sure? Is there something greater than all of us out there? Do the ends justify the means? Can you have light without darkness?
The point, of course, is that in the halls of irony, life imitates art, and so the answers we are left with seem both unsettling, and unsettled. That is the brilliance of Shanley's modern classic, and all the more reason why no one should doubt that the journey to Oldcastle for this play - and these actors -is well worth it.
"Doubt: A Parable," runs through June 22 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington, Vt. For tickets and information call 802-447-0564 or visit www.oldcastletheatre.org.
Telly Halkias is the Stage Names drama critic and an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @TellyHalkias
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