Review: Doubt

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There is much to like about the first production of the 2008/2009 season at the Arts Club Stanley Theatre stage from the extraordinary set design from Alison Green to the performances by the two leads to playwright John Patrick Shanley’s exquisite crafting of characters that you simultaneously hate and feel compassion for.

Set in a Bronx catholic school in 1964, Doubt revolves around the possibility that Father Flynn (Jonathon Young) has been carrying on an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black student. Despite Father Flynn’s denial of any impropriety, the stern school Principal Sister Aloysius (Gabrielle Rose) works determinedly, and against the church’s male-dominated hierarchy, to protect the child even without any solid evidence against the priest.

Adding strength to both sides of the possibility are Sister James (Sasa Brown), the young school teacher who is at first bullied by Sister Aloysius into believing the unthinkable and the boy’s mother Mrs Muller (Michele Lonsdale Smith) who is more concerned about getting her son through to the end of the school year than any fear the boy has been abused.

Gabrielle Rose, Sasa Brown, and Jonathon Young in the Arts Club Theatre Company's production of Doubt. Photo by David Cooper.
Gabrielle Rose, Sasa Brown, and Jonathon Young in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Doubt. Photo by David Cooper.

The real power in Doubt though doesn’t necessarily come with clearly knowing whether the accusations are true or false but in the audience’s identification and sympathies towards either Father Flynn or Sister Aloysius. Who do you believe – the accused priest who is confronted with circumstantial evidence of the abuse or with Sister Aloysius who will go to any length to protect the child regardless of what the truth might really be?

As a sexual abuse survivor myself (at the hands of a priest no less) I found myself oddly conflicted in my allegiance to the characters. On the one-hand I applauded Sister Aloysius for having the conviction to protect the child at all costs, regardless of whether the accusations were true, and at the same time felt compassion for Father Flynn as he denied any wrong-doing against the rather flimsy and explainable evidence against him. And this is where the real strength of Shanley’s play lies – exploring your own reactions to each possibility.

Both Gabrielle Rose and Jonathon Young give stellar performances in this production and while it is still very early in this year’s Vancouver theatre scene we will be very surprised if we do not see them at least among the nominated come Jessie Award time in 2009. We also predict nominations for Set Designer Alison Green who creates three very distinct and elaborate settings within the confines of the small Stanley Theatre stage.

Director Rachel Ditor brings everything together in a compelling theatre experience where ultimately the truth doesn’t really matter – what really matters is the question of how do you separate gossip from truth?

There is no doubt here – this is an auspicious start to Arts Club’s new season and sets the bar very high for theatre in Vancouver this year.

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