Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Review: DOUBT

Review: DOUBT


By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer


Ripped from this morning’s headlines, as they say. And yesterday’s. And tomorrow’s.  John Patrick Shanley wrote Doubt, which won the Pulitzer in 2005, conscious of the “ever widening Church scandals,” but before the current shocking escalations about predatory pedophile priests. Its very relevance skews this fine revival at the Walnut Independence Studio on 3; the play should leave us in doubt, but the audience’s response had pre-emptively moved beyond doubt to condemnation.

It’s 1964 in the Bronx. Father Flynn (Jeff Coon), a young, basketball-playing priest who seems devoted to the parish and the students at St. Nicholas Catholic school, finds himself at war with Sister Aloysius (Ellen Tobie). In full black habit, she is formidable: rule-bound, cold, suspicious and intolerant, while he is warm, compassionate and flexible. Caught in the crossfire is a young, naïve nun, Sister James (Karen Peakes), whose naiveté is exploited by them both.

At issue is a new boy at the school, the first and only black child to be admitted; we will learn from his mother (Kaci M. Fannin) how terrible his homelife is, and how grateful he has been for Father Flynn’s kindness and attention. But Sister Aloysius suspects his attention is abusive and corrupt, and sets out to bring Father Flynn down.

Part of what is so interesting about this play is that it is both idea-driven and character-driven.  And each actor creates a character so distinct, so nuanced, that we feel we know them far better than this hour and a half acquaintance, and each glance and gesture contributes to the play’s issues.  Ellen Tobie’s pursed lips and raised eyebrows; Karen Peakes’ clear blue gaze that seems to cloud over; Kaci Fannin’s shift from accommodating to steely; Jeff Coon’s alternation between smug male entitlement and panicky outrage.

Director John Peakes manages to create both the distance and the intimacy this debate play requires, as the action moves across the handsome set (Glen Sears) on this tiny stage from the pulpit to the garden to the principal’s office.

Doubt’s subtitle is “A Parable,” and the play’s debate serves as one of the clever and pointed illustrations  Father Flynn invents for his sermons (and which Coon delivers very well). The dialogue is full of wise observations about human nature, forcing us to shift from side to side as we find ourselves agreeing with each of the four characters. Shanley wrote in the Preface to the play, “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does….We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.” 

Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 9th & Walnut Sts. Through April 15. Tickets $30.  Information: 215-574-3550 or

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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