Dr. AJ Knox (left) and Kym Pappas in "Doubt." Jason Sullivan (Dupla) photo
John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” is an exacting, pinpoint drama in which every spoken word matters. There are no casual conversations, no throwaway lines. For an audience it demands active, assertive listening with just enough time during for serious thought … and doubt.
New Village Arts’ season-opening production of “Doubt (A Parable)” under the direction of Kristianne Kurner is faithful to the smallest detail to the pace, deliberation and tone of Shanley’s 2004 play about the principal of a Catholic parish school in the Bronx and her strong suspicions that a priest in the same parish has sexually abused a boy student. A pulpit with a stained-glass window behind it serves the solemn (and pointed) homilies of Father Flynn (Dr. AJ Knox). The neat, cloistered office of principal Sister Aloysius (Kym Pappas) is the focal point of Christopher Scott Murillo’s versatile set. It’s where she sternly lectures the young and naïve Sister James (Juliana Scheding), where she confronts Flynn with her suspicions, where she tries, and fails, to enlist the support of the schoolboy’s mother (Sherrell M. Tyler).
Then there’s the space, stage left, that imagines a quiet garden for prayer, contemplation and inner torment. It is where Sister Aloysius retreats in her lone quest to do what she believes is right.
This is a career role for Pappas, whose Sister Aloysius is absolutely unwavering, a stern disciplinarian but also a self-appointed disciple of God. Her formidibility only makes the climax of “Doubt” more wrenching.
The role of Sister Aloysius has to be a daunting one for any actor, even for Meryl Streep who played the part in the 2008 “Doubt” movie. She must be so strong and so sure that we adopt that same certainty. Her cause must outweigh the dominant harsh side of her personality. Doubt must never creep in, until it does.
Aside from Pappas’ marvelous performance, Knox is impressive as Father Flynn, whose piety and smooth gift with messaging may hide a terrible truth.
Scheding’s Sister James is always on the verge of a nervous jag and comes off as someone who’d be a woeful witness for anyone or to anything. We expect her to break out bawling in practically every encounter with Sister Aloysius.
The final showdown between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn is ultra-tense peak theater, so much so that for someone who rarely pays attention to people sitting around me, I couldn’t help but notice the couple to my left – both of them sitting forward, leaning on every word.
Who could blame them?
For New Village Arts, which earlier this year staged the stupendous “The Ferryman,” “Doubt” is a quieter but also noteworthy achievement.
“Doubt” runs through Oct. 22 at the Conrad Prebys Theatre at the Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center in Carlsbad.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.