In her heart—or at least in what there is of it—Sister Aloysius probably thinks Frosty the Snowman is as gay as a pitted prune. She grits her teeth at the mention of his signature song, sort of like when she thinks about all that could go wrong amid the budding sexuality at St. Nicolas, the Bronx Catholic elementary church-school she rules. No one in this principal's path is above suspicion, carnal or otherwise. That includes Father Flynn, her superior, who has a penchant for the company of the school's young men and wears his fingernails a little too long.
In fact, Aloysius is a downright sociopath in her distaste for Flynn—or at least that's how playwright John Patrick Shanley paints her in Doubt: A Parable, the current San Diego Repertory Theatre installment. She spits on her vow of obedience, lying in her bid to entrap Flynn in an alleged involvement with the school's only black kid; meanwhile, she succeeds in robbing fresh-as-a-daisy Sister James of her joy. Shanley's is an absolutely superb story, and not just because it won the 2005 Best Play Tony and Pulitzer Prize and 88 other things. But the Rep succeeds only in capturing the script's expedient side, as director Todd Salovey appears to miss the larger point. If this script were the Bible, this Doubt would amount to little more than its tidy executive summary.
The play is set in 1964, replete with its fledgling free-spirit movements and the Catholic Church's impending ecumenical reforms. The firebrand Flynn (Doug Roberts) and the hopeful James (Amanda Sitton) are probably elated at the prospects of these new covenants, while the hidebound Aloysius (Rosina Reynolds) bristles at the thought of English-language liturgies and folk Masses. Flynn wants to develop inroads to teaching; James loves art as a metaphor for life (Sitton is outstanding in her funny defense of Frosty); and Aloysius woodenly insists the two are wasting their time.
But Flynn's and James' lofty ideals are supposed to clash with Shanley's take on morality as relayed by Aloysius—no such luck here. Speeches on education are actorially underdeveloped. Aloysius' curiosity about the male experience sounds more like a punchline than introspection. Mrs. Muller (Monique Gaffney) paints a scattershot picture of her household in what's supposedly a defense of her son. And watch Aloysius point a wheedling finger at a cowering Flynn, as though scolding a whiny child whose dog allegedly ate his homework. These two should be almost literally at each other's throats, throwing papers and pounding the desk as opposite forces of nature amid sweeping social and religious upheaval—but Salovey plays it far too close to the vest. “I have such doubts!” Al exclaims at the play's end. Only then do we get the feeling that this show isn't so much a whodunit as an anecdote for the perils of certitude in a frighteningly uncertain world.
I saw the incomparable Cherry Jones play Aloysius twice, once in L.A. and when Broadway / San Diego brought the play here in the fall of 2006. I've also seen most of the Rep actors in a lot of shows, and I know them to be extremely responsive to good direction, like Jones. They just don't measure up as a collective here, and I'm not sure it's their fault. Either Salovey thinks the script should speak for itself, without due regard for the cultural adornments Shanley's so careful to give it, or he simply doesn't get the play. This review is based on the opening-night performance of Jan. 16. Doubt: A Parable runs through Feb. 8 at The Lyceum space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $25-$53. 619-544-1000, www.sdrep.org.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.