Beck Center’s ‘Doubt: A Parable’ is a superbly acted tight drama for all faiths
There is a name for people like us. It is a tag that we heard often as we were growing up and no matter where our religious journeys would take us past the age of eighteen the moniker would occasionally cross our minds. For those of us who experienced the oxymoron of a “catholic education” we would forever be titled as “Raised Catholic”. This meant having a first name, middle name, confirmation name and last name. We were also expected to go to college...somewhere...anywhere.
Depending on your experiences, Catholic school was either the best or worst 12 years of your life (eight years of grade school and four years of high school). You were taught by nuns with an occasional priest brought in to teach religious classes. Someone was once even threatened with excommunication because he dared question the practice of eating meat on Friday. OK...it was me. I hated fish.
It was with some trepidation that I entered the Beck Center Studio Theater to view John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable”. The set consists of the inside of THE PRINCIPLE’S OFFICE complete with ornate high window, desk with telephone to call your parents, religious books, the imposing desk and chairs and various crucifixes and statues to suck all the joy from life. The other part of the set is a small garden with high “catholic” arches. I swear I could smell incense. They even had Catholic hymns playing as you came in.
Sister Aloysius Beauview (Derdriu Ring) is principle of St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. It is 1964 (one year after President Kennedy’s assassination). She is a by the book, tough as nails, trained in hand to hand combat, give no quarter nun. She believes that teachers lead the class without emotion or caring. That children are only to be sent home if a bone is showing and writing with a ball point pen (rather than a fountain pen) is a sin against nature itself and should be listed as an eleventh commandment.
Sister Beauview believes her teacher’s job is to prepare their charges for high school and then on to college for everyone knows that Catholic schools are the place to go for the college bound with no room for music, dance, theater or fun. She also has issue with the proposal for any Christmas carols to be sung during the annual school holiday program. In her way of thinking, “Frosty The Snowman” deals with witchcraft and black magic.
Overseeing her position is Father Brendan Flynn (Christopher Bohan) who is the polar opposite of “The Big B” (which is probably what the kids call her behind her back). Father Flynn cares about his parish and especially about the students. He also likes “Frosty The Snowman.” This year they have their first black student, Donald Muller, who the good father has taken under his wing in the predominately Irish and Italian school. Father Flynn is the burr under the saddle blanket of Sister Beauview.
It opens with a meeting between Sister James (Gabriella O’Fallon) and Sister Beauview as she lectures her new teacher about a student being sent home for a bloody nose, the sin of ball point pens, the song choices for the annual pageant, how to act like a teacher instead of a friend, the worthlessness of art, music and dance classes and keep an eye on Father Flynn because she does not trust him...blah...blah...blah.
Soon after, Sister James sees Donald leaving Father Flynn’s study and upon returning to class exhibits strange behavior plus smells of alcohol. Sister James dutifully reports back to Sister B. and the wheels are put into motion with no proof of anything untoward going on. Sister B. then arranges a meeting with Donald’s mother who is only interested in getting her son through to June’s graduation no matter what. Public school had reached a point of being life threatening to her son because, as she puts it, he may be “that way” which results in regular beatings of the boy by his father.
The cast is word perfect throughout the performance. Hearing Derdriu Ring as Sister Beauview had the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up. Gabriella O’Fallon as Sister James brought back memories of teachers that I had who tried hard to uncover our hidden talents. Tamara French as Mrs. Muller is superb as the mother who has to deal with a horrible (at least for 1964) truth of her son being gay. Lastly, Christopher Bohan as Father Flynn gives some great sermons based on what life is throwing his way. One is never truly convinced of his guilt or innocence even up to the end.
Jill Davis’s stage design is a Catholic truth unfolded (take this for someone who may have spent some time in a principle’s office). Adam Ditzel’s lighting design works well and Angie Hayes sound design with slight background noises adds to the mood. Lastly, Jenniver Sparano’s costumes are perfect and period authentic. The show is tightly directed by Donald Carrier.
Big things come in small packages and proof of this is the ninety minute (without intermission) gem in the Beck Center Studio Theater. For any current or former Catholics it will be a merry trip down memory lane as long suppressed memories are revived. You may wish to book an appointment with your shrink later this week.
“Doubt: A Parable” will be in the Beck Center For The Arts Studio Theater at 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, Ohio through June 25, 2023. For more information and to order tickets go to http://beckcenter.org or call (216) 521-2540.