"Doubt," the thought-provoking one-acter by John Patrick Shanley, was rapturously received in 2004 at Manhattan Theater Club; its Broadway transfer opens March 31. This makes the Pasadena Playhouse's West Coast premiere all the more notable, and the play proves worthy of its accolades.

“Doubt,” the thought-provoking one-acter by John Patrick Shanley, was rapturously received in 2004 at Manhattan Theater Club; its Broadway transfer opens March 31. This makes the Pasadena Playhouse’s West Coast premiere all the more notable, and the play proves worthy of its accolades. Alternately humorous and starkly dramatic, it exposes the frigid cruelty of moral finger-pointing without facts and creates mystery by refusing to present issues in black-and-white terms.

Doubt may be the subject of Shanley’s story, but it’s an alien emotion to Sister Aloysius (Linda Hunt), principal at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. This steely representative of hanging-judge morality, who flatly states her dislike of art, dance and music, berates Sister James (Mandy Freund) for responding to her students with too much emotional openness.

Eager to please her formidable superior (“I’ve been trying to become more cold, as you suggested”), Sister James nervously mentions that a 12-year-old boy, the school’s first black student, had liquor on his breath after a meeting with popular Father Flynn (Jonathan Cake). She expresses fear that something improper transpired between clergyman and pupil. Sister Aloysius, almost obscenely eager to accept the worst, launches her own witch hunt and, in one of the play’s most startling moments, declares, “I’ll bring him down!”

Shanley and director Claudia Weill build excitement by creating doubt in the viewer. As played by Cake, Father Flynn is an expansively sympathetic, charismatic and caring figure, yet the implication subtly surfaces that he may, in fact, be a pedophile. Since we dislike Sister Aloysius intensely and tend to side with the persecuted pastor, we reject both the idea of Flynn’s guilt and the unsubstantiated way in which Sister Aloysius reaches her conclusions.

The increasing darkness of the confrontations is framed against Gary L. Wissmann’s beautifully benign backgrounds, which include a brick courtyard with lovely arches, a stone statue and trees. The driven inquisitor echoes all monomaniacal accusers with “I know I’m right.” She spews out the words, “You lie” and remains rigid in horrifying exchanges in which the pastor veers between threats and pleas for mercy.

Hunt projects velvet arrogance, along with a bullying belief in her own superiority and sanctity. Ultimately, however, her acting approach is too tentative. She doesn’t enunciate clearly at the beginning, while in the later, brilliantly written scenes, her interpretation is too subdued, muting the power of the collisions.

Cake’s Father Flynn is more successful at capturing the ambivalence and doubt lurking beneath a carefully worked-out public front. Playwright Shanley dares to suggest some gay pastors — not necessarily pedophiles — were positive influences, despite their sexual orientation, because they championed and watched out for students in need. This subtext makes Flynn a genuinely controversial character.

In addition to the pleasure of enjoying the actor’s superb portrayal, we try to sort out the kind of man he is and reflect on the extent of the danger such clergymen pose to the church.

The importance of this issue is intensified when Sister Aloysius meets Mrs. Muller (Patrice Pitman Quinn), mother of the youngster who may have been molested. Quinn gives a vibrant, compassionate portrayal of a parent who wants her child to graduate and is temporarily willing to ignore the ramifications of his attachment to a man who has shown him more kindness than has his violent father.

Rounding out the quartet is Freund’s Sister James. She’s innocent without being saccharine, timid yet ready to voice her opinions, and Freund becomes an impressive, worthy adversary in the heated debates with her repressive, critical employer.

One of the play’s most arresting speeches occurs when Father Flynn justifies his use of fictional parables to underline a point, claiming, “Truth makes for a bad story.” Fortunately, “Doubt” proves, through its honesty and integrity, that truth makes for an outstanding play.

Doubt

Pasadena Playhouse; 688 seats; $53 top

Production

A Pasadena Playhouse presentation of a play in one act by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Claudia Weill.

Creative

Sets, Gary L. Wissmann; costumes, Alex Jaeger; lighting, Jeremy Pivnick; original music and sound, Steven Cahill; production stage manager, Anna Belle Gilbert. Opened, reviewed March 11, 2005. Runs through April 10. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN

Cast

Sister Aloysius - Linda Hunt Father Flynn - Jonathan Cake Sister James - Mandy Freund Mrs. Muller - Patrice Pitman Quinn

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