This is a great time to see John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” again, as synchronicities in the news cycle have seemed to usher in its necessity. Just this week, Alex Gibney’s documentary about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, “Mea Maxima Culpa,” began airing on HBO, and this past Thursday, a lawsuit was filed against ex-priest Neil Doherty, alleging sexual abuse here in South Florida.
It seems that as long as there are protected priests and impressionable children, there will always be reason to see “Doubt.” Eight years after winning both a Pulitzer and the Tony Award for Best Play, “Doubt” is looking more and more like a canonized classic – a theatrical standard on par with the Tennessee Williams and David Mamet plays that crop up every season or so at regional theaters across the country. Most theatergoers, especially in South Florida, have seen the play in some incarnation; it’s already enjoyed runs at the Caldwell and Key West’s Waterfront Playhouse, not to mention a star-studded feature film.
“Doubt” is, by now, such a familiar masterpiece that seeing another version of it frees up critics and audiences to pay less scrutiny to Shanley’s wonderful script and instead zero in on the specificities of the production – to revel in the distinctive directorial and casting touches and the particulars of the design.
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s newly opened production offers plenty to chew on; it’s at least the best nonmusical production the theater has mounted since “12 Angry Men” in 2010 – a fact that is doubly satisfying given that the cast and director are all local to South Florida.
“Doubt,” as you may recall, is a self-described parable that addresses a multitude of issues – faith, race, gender, prejudice, domestic abuse – in a script that is as elegant as it is open to interpretation. The play’s central axis spins on the unresolved allegation that Father Flynn (Jim Ballard), who ministers in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, acted “inappropriately” with the school’s only African-American student. Based on a vague tip from an uncertain nun named Sister James (Julie Kleiner), the convent’s cold-blooded Mother Superior, Sister Aloysius (Maureen Anderman), leads an obsessive charge to discredit the priest without a shred of evidence. She’s clearly on a hunt to besmirch a man whose liberal leanings she disagrees with, but the suspicion forever remains that she might be right.
J. Barry Lewis, resident director at Palm Beach Dramaworks, directs what is, for all intents and purposes, a Dramaworks-style production on the Maltz stage, and his quirkiest touch is the humor he helps bring to the role of the priest. “Doubt” wouldn’t work if Father Flynn failed to charm us as he does his congregants, and Jim Ballard makes for exceptional casting. He brings a streetwise likeability and an accurate New York accent that I haven’t heard in any other version, and when he channels the rage of a wrongly oppressed man in Mother Superior’s office, it comes across as genuine. Of course, guilty child molesters are just as talented at turning on the charm and playacting innocence, and Ballard’s nebulous acting always keeps us guessing.
Julie Kleiner’s performance probably could have been dialed back in a few key moments; her enthusiastic embrace of Father Flynn’s defense of his case comes across as unusually naïve, even for a cloistered nun. Karen Stephens contributes another unassailable performance in the show’s smallest role, as the child’s mother. It’s OK that it isn’t the knockout performance Viola Davis gave in the film version; not every cameo needs to be a scene-stealer, and Stephens works wonderfully within the ensemble.
But the highest praise must be reserved for Anderman. The actress was seen most recently in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of “A Delicate Balance,” where I found her performance to be overly mannered and almost soap-opera-bound – and moreover, her enunciation was a problem in certain scenes, making her difficult to understand. My reaction couldn’t be more opposite here; this is a role in which mannered severity is essential, and she arguably does a better job at shaping her character’s ice-streaming veins and prison-warden mentality than Meryl Streep did in the motion picture. Anderman’s work is so polished as to look effortless, making us care deeply about a person who doesn’t exhibit an iota of actual change – of actual humanness – until the play’s final line. That she manages to inject so much dry wit into the proceedings is icing on the cake.
The action plays out in a single act on a beautifully fluid set design that transitions from office interior to courtyard to gymnasium and chapel with grace and three-dimensionality. Timothy Mackabee’s sets are boxed in, and the effect is like watching a square movie on a widescreen frame, masked by curtains on either side. This was a wise choice for a theater known for using all of its proscenium, creating the sense of a compressed chamber piece that works wonders for Shanley’s material.
Paul Black’s lovely lighting design is rife with chiaroscuro shards of sunlight blanketing the action, Anna Hillbery’s ecclesiastical garments cover their characters like coffin-black shrouds, and sound designer Marty Mets gets the small details just right, from a crow’s penetrating caw to the ambient noise of a basketball practice. Once again, even in a small-scale, economical show like “Doubt,” the Maltz continues to prove why it’s the leader of South Florida’s theatrical pack.
“Doubt” runs through Feb. 17 at Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Tickets cost $46-$58. Call 561/575-2223 or visit maltzjupitertheatre.org.