What happens when you suspect a figure of authority of something so terrible that it could destroy the community you are part of? This is at the core of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt: A Parable, a towering achievement of modern US theatre that has also had a lavish Oscar-nominated adaptation. Telling the story of a pair of nuns who suspect a charismatic priest of a terrible crime, it is the latest play to produced by the Oxford Theatre Guild.
To follow in the footsteps of the quartet (Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Viola Davis) of the film is a daunting task, but one the cast tackles with great aplomb. Cathy Oakes is initially ferocious as Sister Aloysius, yet as the play continues little cracks of humanity slip through, and it is a powerfully effective performance. Rosanna Mills acts as a nice counterbalance to Oakes, her character most racked by the guilt bred by the accusations. Mills is a strong physical performer, bringing noticeable little touches to flesh out Sister James. Initially Father Flynn is seen at work during a sermon and as a basketball coach. Max Windich brings a charisma to these moments that effectively heightens the drama later on, when his mask begins to slip. And while Sabrina Richmond's Mrs Mueller is present in a single scene, it is such a powerful scene and Richmond's presence dominates it so fantastically, that it is a stand-out moment. It is the point where any levity drains out of the play and we are left with the crushing reality at its core.
The strength of Shanley's texts is how tightly focused it is. It keeps its attention on a few characters and only gives access to the wider community through their conversations. There is a sense of flux at the centre of Doubt that means, though set in the mid-60s, the play feels as relevant today. It is particularly apt for the cultural moment the West is going through, with uncomfortable truths and the institutionalisation of the cover-up of abuse being thrust into public view. The play is a bubbling cauldron of issues of race, gender, sexuality, and modernisation vs. tradition, and is really something special. This production would be worth seeing for the strength of the text alone.
The production design is austere but effective, with the costuming particularly strong. Doubt is not a play that requires a lavish set, and this setup allows the power of the text to be effectively displayed. I felt a few of the lighting changes were a tad hasty and the production could have benefited from being allowed a moment or two to breathe. But it is a minor gripe for a very good show.
With four exceptionally good performances in one of the greatest plays of the 21st century, the Oxford Theatre Guild have another hit on their hands. If you can bring yourself to explore a dark chapter of our recent history then I cannot recommend Doubt enough.