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Without a Prayer 

On the way to his trial in ancient Athens, Socrates ran into a man called Euthyphro who was bringing charges against his own father for homicide. Euthyphro was certain that he was doing the right thing. Socrates was amazed at the man's certainty, but then again, Socrates is famous for placing doubt at the center of philosophic inquiry.

Doubt: A Parable " currently on the boards at Southern Rep " could almost be the title of that dialogue (and many others) by the celebrated ironist of the Agora. The play, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play, does not set doubt against certainty. It is rather a study of the relentlessness of certainty, and also, in a curious way, the relentlessness of doubt. By the end of the play, none of the characters can be said to have maintained their certainty, and the audience is drawn into the chaotic circle of doubt as well.

'What do you do when you're not sure?" a handsome young priest asks as the play begins. 'That is the topic for my sermon." He reminds everyone of the horror they felt when they learned of the assassination of JFK. How is it possible to retain one's faith in a world where such things are possible. Where would the disaster end? A community of feeling linked people. The bond with fellow human beings, says the priest, was despair. The crisis of faith " or doubt " can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty, he says

This sermon by Father Flynn (Jamie Wax) is crucial in two ways. It introduces the philosophic context of the play, and it also triggers suspicions and antipathy in the formidable Sister Aloysius (Clare Montcrief). She wonders what made Flynn come up with a sermon about doubt and loss of faith. Is there something on the priest's conscience? Aloysius is the Mother Superior of the convent and the principal of its grade school. She is a rigid, authoritarian, fear-inspiring battle-ax who seems like she might be equally well suited to life as a Viking sea raider. It's much to Montcrief's credit that she invests this caricature of a figure with sustained intensity without jolting us into disbelief. Mother Superior is the driving force of the drama. She falls like a great black bird of prey on Father Flynn, determined to tear his sinful secret from him " a secret that she has intuited even though there's no clear evidence.

In her campaign, Sister Aloysius tries to enlist the help of Sister James (Andrea Frankle), a young, gentle, virginal teacher. If Aloysius can be seen as the dark, repressive side of Catholicism, James is clearly a follower of the Nazarene who asked that the children be allowed to come to him. She is a teacher, and she loves kids. She would rather bend a rule to help them make progress than to slap them down. This sort of laxity infuriates the Mother Superior.

Ironically, it's Sister James who first plants the seeds of suspicion by telling Mother Superior that Father Flynn once took a student " the only student of color " into the rectory alone. When the boy returned to class, he seemed upset. Furthermore, his breath smelled of alcohol. Mother Superior vows to bring down the erring priest.

I won't ruin your enjoyment by detailing the swerves and curves as Flynn's fate is determined. Befitting a play about doubt, we remain unsure of what actually took place, although Father Flynn gradually reveals his side of the story. It sounds credible, but is it true?

We even get a glimpse of the alleged victim's home life when his stressed-out mother (Donna Duplantier) comes to the principal's office to discuss her son.

Under Carl Walker's direction, the cast does a remarkable job. In fact, on opening night, numerous scenes won well-deserved applause. One of the impressive things about the script is how compelling the drama is without calling on the actors to huff and puff or tear up the scenery. David Raphel's revolving indoor/outdoor set is attractive and admirably suited to the narrative flow.

All in all, Doubt is an enjoyable, fascinating show. It will give you a window into what's happening in American theater now. Be prepared to sit down afterward with your companions and have a little Socratic dialogue of your own about what you just saw " which characters, if any, were right and which were wrong.

click to enlarge In Doubt, Father Flynn (Jamie Wax) is accused of being too fond of a child.
  • In Doubt, Father Flynn (Jamie Wax) is accused of being too fond of a child.


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