The Weston Playhouse Theatre Company

Saturday, June 28, I attended the matinee performance of "Doubt", the John Patrick Shanley play, and Weston Playhouse in Weston Vermont. The good news is that the play in many respects equals the high standards of play production that I have come to expect from this venerable company. For example, this set was a miracle in its own right, giving the three requisite playing spaces in such detail that one could judge the whole from the parts given. Down to the last detail of pictures on the wall, this was a superb piece of theatrical creation. Further good news comes in the form of the casting. John Leonard Thompson as father Brendan Flynn is exactly what this character should look like and the manner in which he should comport himself, including a Bronx dialect that was as necessary to the play as his antagonist, Sr. Aloysius Beauvier (Kate Goehring). Goehring seemed uncertain of the subtle complexity of the character's moment-by-moment progress through the course of the play, which most pointedly was indicated by anticipated lines. God and the price of gas willing, I would gladly return for one of the last performances to see what progress will have been made in the fleshing out of her Sr.Aloysius (I'm reminded that the great baritone Leonard Warren, when asked what he thought of his newest role, Verdi's Macbeth, told the reporter to asking the question again after he had done 50 performances. Sr. Aloysius has the same complexities). If I were she, I would concentrate on the transitions, especially in the last scene, to make her final utterances more credible emotionally. Sister James (Loren Orkus) and Mrs. Muller (Ora Jones) act their parts credibly. The largest flaw in this current production is twofold: the play is basically mortal combat in words -- both sides are playing for keeps with real weapons that cause real harm. The production early on turns into combat, and it seldom if ever relaxes -- truly relaxes -- to allow the appearance of human contact. While I will not say that opportunities for such humanity abound in this play, there are some, and they are either given short shrift or ignored, primarily the first. The second grows out of the first: the combat becomes shrill -- literally. This is not a play about Valley girls, and even on the part of Thompson it becomes screechy. The work of Malcolm Ewen, the director, has always been marked by a subtlety of the emotional expression, and this time, for some unknown reason, that subtlety is exactly what's missing. In the final scene between the two nuns, the d_uement is weakened because the subtext of the two nuns emotional states is unclear. Sister James, we learned, has returned and her brother is recovering -- but what purpose does even a mention of her brother's illness serve in the play, if not to be able to be used as an emotional subtext, an indicator of change? With a play script so incisive and so compact, every single mention of an event or person or concept that does not immediately appear to be related to the main subject has to bear the burden of unspoken subtext, and at the Saturday matinee, the production often failed to cast light into the small areas, so that by contrast the entire play becomes more relevant. One last thought: this is the second production of "Doubt" that I have seen, and I suspect I am fated to see many more. Shanley is the fountainhead of one aspect in the preparation of a production of the play that I think is less than meaningful, namely, what was going on in 1964 and the years preceding and following? This play can be one of two things: it can be reality, or it can be a rather oblique metaphor for a cultural change that, while real, has nothing to do with the case. Had Vatican II not existed, doubts could still have run as deep as they assuredly did. The male hierarchical reality of the Roman Catholic Church, where nuns chiefly functioned as handmaids for the priesthood, and meetings never took place without witnesses or without doors opened, would still have been as real as its actuality was. In fact, I dare say, things are not so very much better today. While understanding temporal backgrounds or backdrops may lead to some Aha!-moments, it seems to me that time would be better spent in finding the subtleties that exist in the conversations that people have with one another. Why, for instance, is it important that Sr. Aloysius, like the founder of her order, was a widow? Was her marriage a happy one? Was her husband hierarchically her master? How did she feel about his untimely death? Why did she use her having been married as a weapon of defense? Especially to Mrs. Muller, who has just talked about the violence that her husband expends on their son? These are the relevant backgrounds or backdrops, and as much as I applaud the exactitude of place and time that is so much a characteristic of the fine productions at Weston Playhouse, here it seems to have been elevated to the detriment of the play. Having said that, I still consider this to be an exemplary production, even though it is flawed. I heartily recommend it.

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