Traveling production casts 'Doubt' on committal of heinous crime
Actor Brendan Shanahan keeps his Saint Genesius medal close to his heart.
"He's the patron saint of actors," Shanahan explained.
A little extra pull from the divine couldn't hurt as he treads the boards as Father Flynn in the Montana Repertory Theater's touring production of Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Doubt: A Parable." The play by John Patrick Shanley, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005, comes to the Clay Center Friday.
Shanahan's Father Flynn is a well-liked, articulate and progressive priest and teacher who is drawn into a tense conflict with the rigidly conservative nun and school principal, Sister Aloysius (played by Suzy Hunt), over a possible incident of possible sexual misconduct.
"The brilliance of this play is you don't know who's the antagonist and who's the protagonist," Shanahan said. "You don't know who's the good guy and who's the bad guy.
"If you believe Sister Aloysius, her feelings and interpretation of what she's heard, then absolutely she's the hero, but if not..."
If not, then Father Flynn is on the verge of being wrongly accused of one of the worst crimes imaginable.
On the face of it, "Doubt" is a period place, drawing back the generational curtain to give modern audiences a look at the not so distant past: the early 1960s. The characters are very much products of their time.
Sister Aloysius represents the old image of the church and a Catholic education with harsh discipline, nuns with rulers and fierce adherence to a rigid code of conduct. Father Flynn is part of a social change within the church and beyond.
"He's the poster boy for the Ecumenical Council [Vatican II]," Shanahan said. "That's where they said we have to quit being the rule-cracking Roman emissaries and be part of their parish's families.
"It was all part of the time of the '60s with the peace movement, Civil Rights and Women's Liberation. The winds of change were blowing."
Still, "Doubt" is more than just a period piece or a mystery concerned with guilt or innocence. It's about the power of words and the danger of rumor.
Shanahan pointed out that the daily news is frequently full of stories about vile and despicable crimes of sexual abuse of children by teachers, priests and coaches, but he also noted that there are plenty of stories about false accusations and lives torn apart over lies.
On the day he auditioned for the role of Father Flynn, Shanahan remembered reading about a P.E. teacher in Kansas who'd been accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl.
He said the case took two years to go to trial, and finally, the accuser came forward and said she'd made the whole thing up. She'd been upset about having to participate in gym glass on a particular day.
The teacher lost his job, his home and had to leave the state.
"The thing to remember," Shanahan said, "is once the accusation is out, you can't take it back."
The play became a film in 2008, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis, all of who were nominated for Oscars.
Shanahan said, "The dialogue for the screenplay and the stage production are almost verbatim. John Patrick Shanley did the screen adaptation and directed the film, so he certainly kept control in making sure his story wasn't changed."
But even though the story and dialogue are the same, the film and the play are very different.
"The beauty of the movie is you get to see that world, the school and all those kids. You get to see Sister Aloysius [Meryl Streep] take the transistor radio from the kid. In the play, it hits more home, I think, because you don't see that. It's more about the innuendo."
Everything is hearsay, rumor and gossip, which may or may not be true.
Shanahan added, "I think that's one of Shanley's main points in 'Doubt.' You never know goes on behind closed doors."
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.