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In the theater, said Marlon Brando, “You can have a universal experience of fear, of anger, of tears, of love, and I discovered that it’s the audience, really, that’s doing the acting.”

Audiences can also become disturbed — even shaken to the point where they question their own certainty. The great plays linger in the mind because you can’t pin them down. Was Hamlet crazy? Why couldn’t the Prozorov sisters go to Moscow? Will Godot ever arrive? Possibilities ping-pong. John Patrick Shanley shaped a play for that effect. Doubt, which he says can be “a passionate exercise,” is both its title and its outcome.

The play is set at St. Nicholas, a Catholic Church and school in the Bronx. It’s 1964, about a year after the JFK assassination, when hosts of people lost their ideals — some even their sense of permanence. In 1962, Pope John XXII advocated “Vatican II,” an attempt to make the Catholic Church more responsive to the needs of society. And in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in government, schools, and employment. In a short period of time, these events drove wedges into traditions etched in granite.

In an opening sermon, Father Brendan Flynn looks for positives. JFK caused profound disorientation, even despair, but it bound people together. “Think of that,” he says, “it was awful, but we were in it together!” Flynn claims that “doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”

Flynn subscribes to Vatican II and the Civil Rights movement (which could explain why he’s taken the school’s first black student, Donald Muller, under his wing). Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal, is spare-not-the-rod old school. Vigilant to the point of vigilantism, she thinks art’s a “waste of time,” that one shouldn’t idealize Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that Father Flynn performed a sexual “infringement” with Donald Muller.

Her evidence: hearsay and stereotypes. Flynn’s espousing a more familial church makes him suspect, to her, as do his longish nails and championing of secular Christmas songs. Her proof: when Muller left his meeting with Flynn at the rectory, he had alcohol on his breath and made a “peculiar” expression. Sister’s case is far too skimpy for a court of law. But in what Shanley calls our “courtroom culture,” where bluster trumps reason, “communication has become a contest of wills.” And Sister presses on.

The San Diego Rep hands out a questionnaire for Doubt: “Do you think the priest is guilty?” Honestly? I’d need more information. But the question also asks if the play made you unsure. And that answer is yes. Even though rigid to the letter of the law, Sister Aloysius may be on to something. And given the 2004 John Jay Report, in which Catholic bishops revealed 4300 cases of sexual misconduct in the priesthood, there’s a chance that humane Father Flynn may be less so.

But Sister’s on such a witch hunt, it’s hard to take her side. She’s obsessed with slamming Father Flynn. (In case he tipped his scales by making her too fearsome, Shanley dedicated the play to “the many orders of Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others.” And he gives Sister a gratuitous concluding line that re-strikes the balance.)

For the Rep, Giulio Perrone’s pale gray church façade and pastel stained-glass windows feel too tempered for a play with such tough questions. Todd Salovey’s direction is capable, for the most part, but tends to put clues to character on the surface — reactions, in particular, that steer the case for and against — that would be better expressed as subtexts.

Douglas Roberts walks kindly Father Flynn on a tightrope. Does he become paranoid because he’s been caught or because he could lose his beloved calling? Innocent Sister James wants life to remain simple. Amanda Sitton traces her almost speechless disillusionment with eloquence. In a brief, explosive cameo, Monique Gaffney plays Mrs. Muller. Sister James has become a moral battlefield. Mrs. Muller lives in a real one that comfy goods and evils can’t contain.

Rosina Reynolds makes Sister Aloysius unyielding and authoritarian but shows that she’s trapped in a larger, even more authoritarian system. The church’s male-dominated chain of command protects Father Flynn and makes her almost powerless. Reynolds walks an intriguing tightrope: Sister seems monstrous, true, but she has to be since she’s also the outnumbered underdog.

* * *

Craig Noel Award Winners, 2008:
Special Awards: Jonathan McMurtry, Arthur Wagner, Steve Karo
Resident Musical: Dreamgirls, San Diego Music Theatre; Xanadu, La Jolla Playhouse
New Musical: Memphis, La Jolla Playhouse
Orchestrations for a Musical: Larry Hochman, Dancing in the Dark, Old Globe Theatre
Direction of a Musical: Sean Murray, A Little Night Music, Cygnet Theatre; Steve Glaudini, Les Miserables, Moonlight Stage Productions
Lead Performance in a Musical, Male: Chad Kimball, Memphis, La Jolla Playhouse
Lead Performance in a Musical, Female: Deborah Gilmour Smyth, The Light in the Piazza, Lamb’s Players
Featured Performance in a Musical, Male: Tony Houck, Scrooge in Rouge, Diversionary Theatre; Patrick Page, Dancing in the Dark, Old Globe Theatre; Ton3x, Dreamgirls, San Diego Musical Theatre
Featured Performance in a Musical, Female: Lilias White, The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea, San Diego Repertory Theatre
Choreography: Bill T. Jones, The Seven, La Jolla Playhouse
Direction of a Play: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Fences, Cygnet Theatre
Sound Design: Tim Boyce, A Streetcar Named Desire, Ion Theatre
Costume Design: Jennifer Brawn Gittings, Scrooge in Rouge, Diversionary Theatre; Anna Oliver, The Women, Old Globe Theatre
Lighting Design: David Lander, 33 Variations, La Jolla Playhouse
Set Design: Derek McLane, 33 Variations, La Jolla Playhouse
Ensemble Acting: Fences, Cygnet Theatre
Featured Performance in a Play, Female: JoAnne Glover, The Receptionist, Cygnet Theatre; Rachael Van Wormer, Bash, Ion Theatre
Featured Performance in a Play, Male: Manny Fernandes, Golden Boy, New Village Arts; Bobby Plasencia, Water and Power, San Diego Repertory Theatre
Lead Performance in a Play, Female: Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Fences, Cygnet Theatre; Amanda Sitton, Golden Boy, New Village Arts
Lead Performance in a Play, Male: Antonio T.J. Johnson, Fences, Cygnet Theatre; Tom McAndrew, Terra Nova, Inukshuk Theatre Company
Solo Performance: Linda Libby, Request Programme, Ion Theatre
New Play: In This Corner, Old Globe Theatre
Touring Production: Spring Awakening, Broadway/San Diego
Dramatic Production: Fences, Cygnet Theatre

Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley
San Diego Repertory Theatre
Directed by Todd Salovey; cast, Rosina Reynolds, Douglas Roberts, Amanda Sitton, Monique Gaffney; scenic design, Giulio Perrone; costumes, Mary Larson; lighting, Trevor Norton; composer, Michael Roth
Playing through February 8; Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

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