“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” says Father Flynn in a sermon to his flock in the opening scene of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt.”
These days, there are a lot of topics that might stir up doubt, such as: Will we survive as a republic? A species? A planet? And so forth.
Nonetheless, in this post-”Spotlight” world, if a nun suspects a parish priest of being a sexual predator, it’s possible that only a few would doubt her.
“Doubt,” however, is set in 1964. President John Kennedy has been murdered. Pope John the XXIII (now a saint) has died in the midst of the Second Vatican Council he’d called to try to move the Catholic church into a 20th century mode. And Martin Luther King has received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his work trying to move the U.S. out of its own dark ages. The world, in ways both hopeful and tragic, will never be the same.
An exceptional cast of four manages to evoke the confusion of another time — and deftly link it to our own — in UpStage Napa Valley’s current gripping production, directed by Sharie Renault.
Sister Aloysius (Elaine Jennings), principal of St. Michael’s, is an old-world nun. Stone cold, stone hard, she generates fear, is satisfied by this, and the suggestion that she should be part of the “family” of parishioners appalls her.
In her charge is the innocent Sister James (Danielle Devitt), whose dewy idealism is challenged by the uncompromising principal. In a first, chilling encounter, the older woman attacks the younger’s self-confidence, her love of teaching, and her devotion to students as deftly as if she’d gone after it with a scalpel. “Satisfaction is a vice,” she warns a devastated new teacher.
But Sister Aloysius ‘ real object of concern is one of Sister James’ eighth-grade students: the first and only black student at the school, an outcast who seemingly has made only one friend, Father Flynn (Rob Barlow).
For a woman rigidly devoted to rules, Sister Aloysius takes a risky route: She has no proof, but she is certain that the priest is molesting the boy. In conversations with Sister James, Father Flynn, and with the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Carlet Langford), she unflinchingly maintains her charges. She even lies, explaining to a thunderstruck Sister James, “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.”
What is the truth about the friendly Father Flynn, who coaches basketball and has the boys over to the rectory to discuss “being a man”? Has Sister Aloysius dwelt so much on evil that she sees it where it doesn’t exist? Or is she onto something with a moral clarity that doesn’t need facts to back it up? Is Mrs. Muller abandoning her son or protecting him? Whatever is happening, “it’s only until April,” she tells Sister Aloysius; if he can graduate eighth grade, his future has more prospects.Is poor Sister James ever going to be able to sleep again? When she mentions to Sister Aloysius that she’s been unable to sleep well, that woman’s reply is succinct: “Maybe we’re not supposed to sleep well.”
So finely acted is this balanced work that the the possibilities bounce between characters like a basketball.
What’s the truth? Father Flynn offers an final sermon, telling the story of a gossip who, on confessing her sin, is told to cut open a feather pillow and then try to collect all the unleashed feathers; that’s what it’s like to try to retract a lie.
“Is it true?” asks Sister James.
No, Father Flynn replies. “The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion.”
This was the first opportunity I’d had to watch a production by Upstage Napa Valley, whose schedule was upended and postponed by the October wildfires. Lacking a theater, they have been performing their work at Grace Episcopal and the Presbyterian Church in St. Helena. But there, with minimal props, they’ve created a compelling production that is well worth experiencing. It will stay with you, even in our post-truth times.
Performances of “Doubt” continue through Nov. 19, at St. Helena Presbyterian Church, 1428 Spring St. A special performance to benefit the fire relief fund is at 8 p.m. on Nov. 11 at Grace Episcopal Church. For tickets, call 707-341-3278 or 707-942-2278 or go online to CalistogaTheaterCompany.com.