Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Doubt: A Parable" at NCTC

The first time I saw "Doubt: A Parable," John Patrick Shanley's play about a (possibly) pedophile priest in the Bronx in 1964, it was during its original run off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club, during previews. I remember staggering from the theater, knocked off-kilter by the brilliant economy of Shanley's text, not to mention equal brilliance from the cast, especially Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne. I saw the play a second time, during its Best of Broadway run, again with Cherry Jones, but many of its nuances were lost because the Golden Gate was simply too big a venue.

I wasn't planning to see it again, but good friends were very impressed by the production at New Conservatory Theater Center and insisted I go. I did, more than a tad skeptical. NCTC has hosted a couple of the worst things I've ever seen staged. However, I support them with my presence at many of their shows, and cut them a lot of slack, given the budget and talent pool they have to work with. Sometimes they surprise with their quality ("History Boys"), sometimes they disappoint ("Some Men"). Tonight they sort of blew me away.

From the moment I walked in, this was the best NCTC production I've seen. The set was simple without being austere, and evocative of the time and place. But, I thought, set is one thing -- this could all come crashing down the moment the actors open their mouths. But they didn't. In fact, every one acquitted themselves extremely well, especially Scarlett Hepworth in the role of the twisted Sister Aloysius. When you've seen Cherry Jones and Meryl Streep in a role, it's hard to expect anyone to top those performances. Fortunately, acting isn't a zero-sum game with world ranking points, and Hepworth brought her own (equally valid) interpretation of the character to the NCTC stage and I was just as mesmerized by it. The 85 minutes flew past.

Of course, when you are given a text as brilliant as Shanley's (which ended up winning both the Pulitzer and Tony Awards), that's a great start. But it takes more than a great play to make a great production, and the cast and director Ben Randle also deserve kudos for revealing aspects of the play I'd never noticed before. After the past few productions, I was left in doubt as to whether Father Flynn actually did have an inappropriate relationship with one of the altar boys. When I left the theater last night, I had much greater certainty about what the character was up to. I'd also been a little confused by the last line of the play, but now I believe I know what Sister Aloysius means when she says, "I have such doubts."

If you haven't seen "Doubt: A Parable," don't wait any longer. This may be the best chance you get. Go see a wonderful production of terrific play.

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