Despite being a community theater actor, I am consistently awed by the work put into a local production that local people stage for local audiences, and my experience in mid-February at South Bend Civic Theatre (SBCT) confirmed such high production values with its latest Studio Theater effort, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, A Parable.
Premiering off-Broadway in 2004, and awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four 2005 Tony Awards, including Best Play, SBCT’s production of Shanley’s play illustrates SBCT’s efforts to stage current, significant, award receiving work for local audiences. As a sometime actor for SBCT, I shamefully admit that until I sat in the audience for Doubt, A Parable, I had never consciously considered the diverse efforts put into any production but the ones I participated in.
Most plays produced by SBCT begin with the play selection process. Letters are sent out to prospective directors in late spring, soliciting suggestions for the Play Reading Committee. This means for Doubt, A Parable that it was only two years removed from its critical accolades, and such a well-received script is oftentimes unavailable for community theaters so early in its life; in fact, Executive Director of SBCT, Jim Coppens believes SBCT’s production was one of the first community theater stagings of Shanley’s play.
Once a play is selected for the next season, SBCT builds its schedule. Plays and musicals get directors, and directors learn their time slots and venue. No longer confined to producing and fitting everything in a 19th century firehouse seating 77, and now able to choose between an intimate black box studio space and a larger auditorium, Doubt was appropriately slated by the Play Reading Committee and SBCT Board for the black box.
The black box affords greater intimacy with the play for the audience, and much like the former Firehouse space, where the action can literally occur inches from the face of the audience, such proximity demands the attention to detail technical wizards like David Chudzynski and Matt Davidson consistently produce. As a result, the first technical meeting often comes next. While these technical meetings are largely a mystery to me, the art that Messrs. Chudzynski and Davidson — and the volunteers they lead — manage to create, amazes and astounds and can go woefully unnoticed as the pieces which slowly appear over the course of rehearsals, suddenly become whole in the week before opening. From establishing subtle lighting nuances and finding impossible sound effects, to creating a painted floor that looks like real hardwood, there is tremendous work done by a crew sometimes exceeding the size of the cast.
Many of the directors I work with indicate casting is anywhere from 90-99% of their work, and I think they’re often just being kind having reflected above on all the cats they have to herd. Auditions can begin 4-7 weeks before a show opens, and once a show is cast, rehearsals can run, depending on the director, anywhere from 5 nights a week for 3 ½ hours a night with “homework” to 3-4 nights a week 2 hours a night. Despite having wanted to act in SBCT’s production of Doubt, A Parable, I believe the director, Jim Coppens, cast his show well, for the title includes the words A Parable, and the very presence of those words indicate John Patrick Shanley had more going on in the text and in his head than the tale of a priest suspected of sexual abuse in 1964.
You see, the complexity of Doubt and its parable means the cast had to make choices, and Shanley does not make their decisions easy, as Shanley never makes clear for the audience whether the priest has made advances on the first African-American student to attend St. Patrick’s, or he has innocently sought to care for, protect and shelter this student from the potential prejudice of the parish and community.
The cast’s choices begin subtly. Sister Aloysius (played by Jean Plumhoff) sets the conflict in motion by establishing doubt in the innocent mind of Sister James (played by Dana Vagg), encouraging her to watch for anything untoward in the behavior of Father Flynn (played by Matthew Bell). Yet as the play progresses, there is no text indicating with clarity who is right or who is wrong. We don’t see Flynn alone with the boy. Any sense of guilt or innocence comes from the actors’ performances. There is no admission of guilt and no vindication of innocence. Without a clear confession, how can there be certainty? This play asks the audience to draw their own conclusions. I will not spoil yours with mine, but I will say that my interpretation came thanks to the strength of Matthew Bell’s performance and the circumstantial evidence as presented by his initial accuser Sister James to his inquisitor Sister Aloysius.
Not until after the play, however, did I realize the efforts and choices these actors had to make. For even if the audience chooses not to judge Father Flynn, Matthew Bell – the actor — must know what Father Flynn’s intentions were to the young boy, Dana Vagg – the actor — must know whether or not Sister James truly believes Father Flynn’s proclamations of innocence, and Jean Plumhoff – the actor — has the arguably the hardest choice to make, for she must know why Sister Aloysius experiences doubt in the end. After the play, SBCT offered an opportunity they do not offer enough when they invited the audience to remain after the show to discuss the play with the cast and director. As a result of this conversation with the cast, I reflected beyond my end of show conviction about Flynn’s guilt (or innocence) to a realization that even were I right about Flynn, Shanley’s parable is less about Flynn than it is about Sister Aloysius’ conviction that Flynn was guilty and the action she takes to remove him from the parish.
John Patrick Shanley’s parable premiered off-Broadway a little over a year after the invasion of Iraq and Colin Powell’s evidence to the United Nations that Iraq clearly had weapons of mass destruction, nearly two years after President Bush spoke to the UN about Saddam Hussein’s “Decade of Deception and Defiance,” and approximately three years after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in his staffer snowflakes, “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
We trust those with power and authority. We trust them to be honest. We trust them to protect us. Sometimes there are things they cannot tell us, but when they deceive us, they shake our faith. Sometimes doubt can strengthen our faith as we choose to reject temptation, but sometimes doubt brings down what we previously believed to be pillars of authority: our parents, our teachers and schools, our church and our government.
Not only did South Bend Civic Theatre’s production of Doubt, A Parable open at the start of Lent, SBCT also slated it for an election year. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than you might be aware from when a play is submitted to the Play Reading Committee to its closing night performance.
But Doubt, A Parable isn’t finished. You have one more opportunity to see this production:
“South Bend Civic Theatre is pleased to announce the upcoming Indiana Community Theatre League Festival 2008, “Sharing the Spotlight” to take place in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium on Saturday March 15, 2008. Six community theatres from throughout Indiana will each present a different (abbreviated) play for adjudication by two nationally renowned judges, Mary Britt and Morrie Enders. An awards ceremony and brunch will follow on Sunday March 16, 2008 in the Holiday Inn, downtown, South Bend.This will be the first year South Bend Civic Theatre will host the event in its new home at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. Past years’ competitions have garnered SBCT numerous awards including first place honors for 2007’s The Gin Game, which went on to regional competition. South Bend Civic Theatre is honored to be hosting and “sharing the spotlight” with the best community theatre Indiana has to offer.The schedule is as follows:Block I: 10:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Elkhart Civic Theatre, “Smoke on the Mountain”
South Bend Civic Theatre: “Doubt, a Parable”Block II: 2:30-5:00 p.m.
Community Theatre of Terre Haute: “Variations on the Death of Trotsky”
Kokomo Civic Theatre: “See Rock City”Block III: 7:30-10:00 p.m.
Muncie Civic Theatre: “This Song is Your Song”
Community Theatre Guild (Valparaiso): “Letters Home”A limited number of tickets will be available to the general public the day of the event for $10 per Block or $25 for all 6 Productions. Walk-up sales will be available March, 15 only. Check or cash only. (Sorry we cannot accept credit or debit cards for this event.) For more information please call 574-234-1112.”