Does anyone know what doing the right thing is? How can anyone ever know, in a world of ambiguity and complexity, that his or her actions are incontrovertibly just? Certainly plenty of people in the world never question their own motives, but for every comfortably righteous crusader are a dozen well-meaning folk who don't have the benefit of a hotline to God yet still must act. These quietly heroic souls are the focus of John Patrick Shanley's powerful new play, a fellowship, as he puts it, united by a bond of doubt.
When idealistic yet somewhat naïve young Catholic schoolteacher Sister James (Mandy Freund) takes time to speak with school principal Sister Aloysius (Linda Hunt), she is there only to comment on the welfare of one of her students. She takes Aloysius' gentle admonitions to be more worldly and stern at face value, without at first realizing that the older nun has the welfare of the students in mind, as well. Aloysius suspects that a popular young priest, Father Flynn (Jonathan Cake), may be taking advantage of one of the children. However, the voice of a nun in 1964 might not have been heard in the male-dominated church, and the faithful James is about to learn what doubt means.
Hunt is marvelous as Aloysius. As Shanley has written the character, she can be interpreted as either courageous or fanatical or both, and Hunt's portrayal illumines all the facets of this fascinating role. Cake is fantastic as the seemingly good Flynn. One interpretation of the play could be that Flynn is innocent: Although I think the playwright has a definite take, he keeps things so ambiguous that it produces the same doubt in the audience that powers the play.
Freund is wonderful as the genuinely kind James, and Patrice Pitman Quinn is very fine as a conflicted parent. Claudia Weill's direction appropriately keeps the drama at a slow-rising boil until the emotionally tumultuous ending, and Jeremy Pivnick's lighting—particularly the changing shadows over the courtyard set—is evocative and lovely.
"Doubt," presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 5 & 9 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Mar. 11-Apr. 10. $37-53. (626) 356-7529.