Until John Patrick Shanley wrote Doubt, he wrote a bunch of profanity-strewn plays about screwed-up men and women. With Doubt, he washed out his mouth with soap, wrote about a nun who suspects a priest of being a sexual predator, and won a Tony and a Pulitzer. (His work since has been, um, less well received. If you're bored, Google the reviews for his recent Romantic Poetry -- it's better than a skin peel.)
Set in 1964, Doubt pits Sister Aloysius, a by-the-book, decidedly pre-Vatican II principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx, against Father Flynn, a priest eager to open up the church to its parishioners. (You just know there are folk masses in his future.) Sister becomes convinced Flynn is molesting a student, and this 95-minute intermissionless play is the path of destruction on which these two find themselves.
I can't really say that Shanley has created actual characters. He's written "types," and I found I hardly cared what happened to any of them. But what I do love about Doubt is the glorious mechanics of its playwriting. Shanley's stated goal was that the audience should be up in the air about Flynn's guilt -- or rather, that half the audience be convinced he's guilty, and the another half convinced that Aloysius is crazy.
Shanley succeeds in his goal admirably. It's stunning to watch him parcel out information to the audience with such mastery; one seemingly guileless line can, on reflection, mean the exact opposite. And just when you've made up your mind, Shanley sends something else down the pipeline to -- just gently -- tip the scales. It's a rare playwright who can ride an audience as well as Shanley does, and I salute him.
For this clockwork contraption of a script to function, no other playing style would work but naturalism, and Pittsburgh Irish & Classical director Jeffrey M. Cordell has obviously stressed "acting-free" acting from his strong cast. David Whalen, Meghan Heimbecker and Maria Becoates-Bey wisely avoid the gimmicky theater tricks lesser actors would use, and consequently are that much stronger.
But Doubt is practically a one-woman show for the actress playing Sister, and I don't see how anyone could turn in a better, more nuanced and perfectly understated performance than the one Kate Young turns in here.
I have no doubts.
Doubt continues through Sat., Aug. 1. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org