For theater, revealing the truth remains a fundamental imperative. Yet, of equal importance for any art form is to provoke audiences to consider what is the real truth of a matter. Ironweed Productions' producing director, Scott Harrison, and his talented cast currently incite such contemplations and discussions through a masterful interpretation of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt, A Parable.
From his New York and Bronx childhood, Shanley began a formative period that predicted failure. Thrown out of St. Helena's kindergarten, expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School and placed on academic probation at New York University, it was only during a stint in the Marine Corps that any hint of an ability to adapt to challenging surroundings emerged. Now it is apparent that Shanley's disruptive childhood experiences were mentally absorbed as material for his compellingly complex Doubt.
Before the play began, many in the audience must have felt set designer Patrick Mehaffy's austere, geometric, box-like white furnishings and angular walls call to mind a religious exposé without a scarlet "A" on anyone's chest, but portending two hours of righteous indignation. The chiaroscuro of black telephone and inkwell or dark habits and robes, against the sea of white, signal an ominous tone. Yet the colorless set and ecumenical garb magnetically draw the audience into the wan colors of religious faces that debate black-and-white morality amidst lurking shades of gray.
Doubt is a cautionary tale that warns of the dangers of mistaking gossip for truth. In this case, Father Flynn's relationship with the school's only black male student is called into question through innuendo. Yet from the moment Jonathan Dixon, as Flynn, launches into his opening monologue of a metaphorical nautical tale of doubt that parallels the play's real quandary, an electrifying odyssey begins.
Dixon not only appears a simulacrum of Kenneth Branagh, but, in the role of a member of the priesthood about to find himself floundering in morally deep waters, he evokes the Northern Irish actor/director's thespian abilities.
And after finding Father Flynn compelling, wait until the mesmerizing performance of Karen Leigh as Sister Aloysius is revealed. It is this formidable soul, misguided or not, who must uphold the banner of morality at St. Nicholas School. Yet Shandy doesn't draw her as a one-dimensional
villain but, rather, provides the accusatory nun with an intermittently engaging repartée and comic relief that is artfully intermingled with dramatic elements.
"In ancient Sparta, matters were decided by those who shouted the loudest," Sister Aloysius decants during one heated interchange. "Fortunately, we are not in ancient Sparta."
Early on, Vanessa Rios y Valles, as Sister James, may feel like a Spartan warrior defending her love of history. The young teacher has the difficult assignment of relating her instructional intentions while besieged as the deferential whipping girl of Sister Aloysius. Yet, upon lengthy provocation, James is more than up to the task of leaving submissiveness behind.
In a late appearance, student Daniel Muller's mother appears to become an apprehensive sitting duck for an explosive encounter with Sister Aloysius. Yet Danielle Reddick, as Mrs. Muller, adroitly manages to upstage her hard-veneered adversary with remarkable emotional impact.
It is reported that playwright Shandy historically has demanded not a word of his works be changed. Acceptance sometimes empowers. Artists, aficionados and critics may not put a daub of paint on an O'Keeffe flower nor change the blank verse of Shakespeare. So too should the words of a contemporary genius remain unadulterated. This production of Shandy's brilliant conundrum will be remembered as one of Santa Fe's most powerful theatrical offerings.