The play Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley aimed to leave audiences with mixed feelings as they walked out of the room. The play is set in 1964 at St. Nicholas Church School and centers on an accusation by one of the nuns teaching there that the head priest, Father Flynn, has been involved in sexual relations with a young boy who is the school’s first African American student. Throughout the play, the audience may side with one or another of the characters in the debate over whether the accusation is true, but is forced to keep doubting each of them.
At the end it is inconclusive whether the misconduct actually occurred. Along the way, though, the audience gains an insight into human character and questions of ethics. The play’s director, Richard Perez, describes that, “While it has no easy conclusions, the play asks important questions about human nature and our desire to have definitive answers.” He adds that, “During the play we may make alliances with one character or another, but we never know for sure if we are correct in doing so.” Students will be performing Doubt again on February 20, 21, and 22, at 7:30 p.m. The reason the word ‘parable’ is in the title is because it’s based on playwright John Patrick Shanley’s church experience. Raised as an Irish Catholic, he attended church every Sunday where his pastor would give a sermon based on a Bible story and ended by explaining to the congregation what the story meant. Shanley loved the stories, but didn’t always agree with his pastor’s singular interpretations of the stories. He always had a desire to contribute his “two-cents” to the conversation. Speaking on “Doubt,” he says, “…what interests me is to tell a story and leave it to the audience to say, ‘Well, this is what it means to me.’” “Doubt” won four Tony awards when it first came out in 2005, including the award for Best Play. Shanley describes his play as, “an open door; it’s a dynamic process.”
The play takes on themes of racial segregation with a black student, who attends a majority-white private school at the heart of a scandal that affects his well-being. Although the Brown v. Board ruling, in which segregated public schools were proclaimed unconstitutional, was delivered in 1954, it wasn’t until 1976 in Runyon v. Crary that the Supreme Court declared that it was also unconstitutional for private schools to deny admission to students on the basis of race. Thus the play, which is set in 1964, highlights some of these issues with racism and segregation that were still going on well after Brown v. Board. Overcrowding and low standards of education in public schools in large cities often put students there at a disadvantage compared to those attending private schools, such as the fictional St. Nicholas Church School in the play. One particularly striking scene occurs when Sister Aloysius, the nun responsible for the allegations, meets with Mrs. Muller, the mother of the African American student. Sister Aloysius expects Mrs. Muller to side with her and is surprised by Mrs. Muller’s insistence on her son finishing his education at whatever cost. Mrs. Muller knows that her son will face challenges throughout his life because of his race, and her biggest priority is getting him an education knowing that it will be key to his future success and way out of poverty. Because of the disadvantages their family faces, she sees the need for her son to finish school despite the challenges. She also recognizes that the weight of a sexual scandal would fall on her son, who would likely be blamed and criminalized. Tia Hockenhull (‘23), who plays Mrs. Muller, describes the character as, “very… tough-loving; she’ll do whatever she needs to do for her son to get the best education.” When Sister Aloysius accuses Mrs. Muller of being a terrible mother for willing to leave her son in the school even with a potentially damaging relationship, Mrs. Muller responds, “You’re just finding out about it, but that’s the way it is and the way it’s been, Sister. You’re not going against no man in a robe and win,” and in direct response to the accusation against her mothering skills, “You don’t know enough about life to say a thing like that.” Mrs. Muller is actually an excellent mother who is doing the best for her son with the resources she has been given. The scene reveals the other characters’ ignorance of the emotional challenges that an African American mother faced in the 1960s. When speaking about the cast of student actors, Perez says that, “Good actors are willing to take chances emotionally, physically and intellectually, and this cast was no exception.”
The play posed some unique challenges for the actors. Two of them had to learn dialects, and one played a character much older than herself (Sister Aloysius is supposed to be about 50 or 60). In addition, Perez says that, “each character goes through an emotional rollercoaster that has pushed the cast to very vulnerable places.” When asked why Hope students should come see the play, Perez responds, “Because [it] is funny, thought provoking and reminds us that we are all on a spiritual journey and sometimes it is okay to have doubts along the way.”