The set-up: Did he or didn't he? That is the question that propels John Patrick Shanley's multiple award-winning play Doubt, A Parable (Pulitzer, Tony, Drama Desk). Did Father Flynn, beloved parish priest and basketball coach at St. Nicholas Church and School, molest troubled student Donald? Did he get him drunk on altar wine in the rectory? Has he done this before? Exacting, conservative school principal Sister Aloysius certainly thinks so, and she will have none of it.
In this heated production at Theatre Southwest, we never find out what really happened in the rectory, because certainty and circumstance collide and swirl and then go their separate mysterious ways in Shanley's provocative drama, confounding audiences as it always has.
The execution: Is Sister Aloysius (Lisa Schofield) a heartless, cold-as-ice throwback to the Middle Ages, stomping with iron boots over creativity and caring, or is she the one true protector of her students, ripping out abuse in her school the only way she can, with innuendo, cunning, and stern eye. In the church hierarchy, she has little power in the "he said, she said" game. The male higher-ups protect their own. If she reported what she thinks she knows to Father Benedict, he wouldn't believe her. She must go a different route.
Is progressive Father Flynn (Bob Maddox) as noble and good as he professes? He pronounces his innocence as if written in stone, but refuses to answer Sister's most pointed questions, leaving her and us with a feeble, "I can not say." What exactly is he hiding? And didn't one of his students rebuff a casual grab on the arm by Father Flynn. Sister saw that the first day of school. Everything is adding up. And what about his long, very clean fingernails? That can't be a sign of anything good.
Does sweet innocent Sister James (Cassandra Austen), a first-year teacher with fresh-faced ideals, really believe him, or has she been swayed -- tainted, perhaps -- by Aloysius's insinuations? During a cool interrogation from Aloysius, which turns into a grilling, she admits that Donald smelled of alcohol after the secret meeting in the rectory with Flynn and seemed withdrawn and not himself in class.
And Mrs. Muller (Shatara Hale)? Donald's clear-eyed mother only wants her son to tough it out through June graduation when he'll be assured of getting into a good high school. What happened in the rectory with Father Flynn is no worse than being at home with a father who beats him for being "that way." Shocked at such bold opportunism, Sister Aloysius assumed that Donald's mother would be the trump card that would bring down Flynn, but she's met her match in this no-nonsense woman who will not be used. She will not accuse Flynn of impropriety with her son.
Through suspicions and suppositions, Shanley builds his drama inexorably toward the ultimate confrontation between Aloysius and Flynn. Both are well armed for the final joust, but will either emerge a winner? What has precedence, Shanley argues persuasively, fact or emotion? Is Sister a monster, destroying an innocent man with nothing but her suspicion and fear because his hip new ways challenge her authority? Or is Flynn a serial predator who gets away with it because of the church's male power structure? Move along, nothing to see here. When the incense clears, these are the tantalizing questions we're left to ponder.
In the roster of Houston actors, who else is ripe for the juicy role of Sister but Lisa Schofield? One of Houston theater's best, Schofield never fails to delight and astonish. (Her Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf a few seasons ago was hauntingly incandescent.) She is fearless in her approach and always finds the most direct way into whatever character she plays. Once you've seen her interpretation of a role, there is no other. She brings steel and unflinching righteousness to Sister, but also a wicked tongue and subtle intelligence. This Sister doesn't suffer fools gladly. She is in the right and she knows it.
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Schofield gives Sister a clipped speech, as if pinched from within. This is one nun you don't want to meet in a dark cloister. When happenstances get messy for her, when she's uncomfortably confronted, see how her hands take refuge inside her habit. Impregnable against whatever force might besiege her, she becomes an icon -- immovable, intractable, the superior Mother Superior. There's a cogent moment when Mrs. Muller tells about her son being different. "You accept and make the best of it," she says in controlled candor, before she puts her hands on Sister's in a gesture of confidence. It's only a moment, but Schofield reacts as if given an electric shock. It's like she hasn't been touched by a person in decades. Exceptionally revealing of Sister's life offstage, that's what actor Schofield does so appealingly, so effortlessly.
Paired with Maddox (a frequent acting partner of Schofield's and another of Houston theater's finest), they turn Shanley's sparring into an edge-of-your-seat war of wits. "Where's your compassion," he desperately pleads. "No where you can get at it," she flings back with withering scorn. They're beautifully matched: he's the smart, new likeable guy on the block, but guarded about his concern for his kids; she's solid as concrete in her convictions, unyielding in the extreme, and no one is going to wreck her school's reputation. Newcomer Austen is a dewy Sister James, a lamb thrown into the lion's den without warning, an unwitting Judas.
It's no surprise pros Schofield and Mattox are exceptional, they always are, but it's Shatara Hale, in the brief, powerful role of Mrs. Muller, who's the revelation here. Her playbill bio states she's from Houston and a graduate of NYC's American Musical and Dramatic Academy, so I hope she'll be gracing her hometown stages for seasons to come. She overlays Muller with waves of compassion and cool reserve. When she butts heads with Sister, she rises to Schofield's level without breaking a sweat. That's what actors love; that's what audiences love. Shanley's scene is full of surprising reverses. Mrs. Muller is no patsy; she wants the best for her son, and if Father Flynn has shown interest in him, so much the better. No one else has, why not this man who seems to care about Donald? Hale plays Mrs. Muller with refreshing honesty. Donald's mother is the real thing - so is Hale. The verdict: Like playwright Shanley, director Jay Menchaca wisely doesn't take sides, allowing his actors to keep us guessing. If you ever thought Catholic school was parochial, wait until you visit St. Nicholas. You'll change your mind, I have no doubt about that.
Doubt, A Parable continues through September 27 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505.$15-$17.