Act of Faith

There are many things to doubt in Doubt. John Patrick Shanley's play could feature a priest yearning to step out of the Dark Ages and into the 21st century, a nun fiercely committed to the moral certainty of her spiritual vows, and an African-American mother grateful that her 12-year-old son has found safety in a Catholic school.

Or the priest could be a child abuser preying on confused adolescents, the nun a relentlessly paranoid bitch on a modern witch-hunt, and the mother willing to permanently scar her child for some temporary calm.

One thing that is incontestable in South Coast Repertory's production of Doubt is that it's a great play. Remarkably economical yet multilayered, easily digestible but beautifully complicated, sardonically funny but grimly intense, Doubt is the kind of play—and this, the kind of stunningly powerful production—that makes theater worth experiencing.

We find ourselves in a Bronx Catholic School in 1964, a vague, uneasy time in America between Camelot and Hanoi, Montgomery and Selma, Leave it to Beaver and Gimme Shelter. The Catholic Church was in a similar state of flux: in the midst of Vatican II, a four-year confab that helped the massive institution shed many of its medieval trappings for a more modern perspective on its role with the secular world (as long as you're not mentioning homosexuality and contraception). In terms of education, it pitted conservatives who preferred ruler-wielding nuns and strict discipline against progressives who leaned toward a kinder, gentler church.

Sister Aloysius, the school's principal, represents the conservative camp. She feels dance and art classes are a waste of time, that she should be feared rather than loved, and that the task of preserving the morality of young, impressionable minds takes unrelenting vigilance. Weighing in on the progressive side is Father Flynn, a priest who is more confidante than commandant, someone who believes children need guidance and encouragement rather than Spartan discipline. Tossed into the already roiling waters of the pair's theories are issues of gender, civil rights, Catholic hierarchy and patriarchy, the moral certitude of spiritual faith, and, of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room: pedophilia.

The fact Shanley packed all of this into 90 minutes is astonishing. Equally impressive is the work onstage in this Martin Benson-helmed production. Linda Gehringer's Sister Aloysius is not the kind of shriveled-up stoic sort one might expect to see in a play about an old-school nun mounting a one-person battle to keep the Catholic Church from the corruptible stain of the modern secular world. She is tall and striking, dominating her time onstage both physically and vocally. This makes her journey—in which her hell-bent crusade forces every character into questioning their faith in God, the church or themselves—even more compelling.

Just as up to task are James Joseph O'Neil's ambiguous if impassioned Father Flynn, who might be the most courageous, or creepiest, character onstage; Rebecca Mozo's Sister James, a young nun torn between loyalty to her order and a sense of justice; and Kimberly Scott, playing an African-American mother who makes perfect sense, even when she seems to be defending a grown man who might be buggering her 12-year-old boy.

Rarely does a play this compact reveal so many layers, or provoke so many serious questions. And rarely does a play so certain in its ambiguity feel this meaningful.

Doubt at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 N 7:30 p.m.. Through Nov. 18. $28-$62.

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