No ‘Doubt’ in EPAC director

By on September 13, 2017

The worth or impact of a director can be hard to discern in the world of theatre.

In my movie column, Reel Reviews, I’m often quick to slap the blame on or reward the efforts of a director because it’s easy; their names are out there. People can love or hate certain directors. I like to say I have a love/hate relationship with M. Night Shyamalan, director of hits like “The Sixth Sense” and flops like “Lady in the Water,” because I can see both his vision in a film and his failings when it comes to progressing a story.

In theatre, the role of a director is complex. He or she is responsible for allowing the actors to bring characters to life, but also has the responsibility of following the ideas and concepts of the playwright. That is not to mention blocking, lighting, sound, etc. Direction is sometimes a thankless job. Giving praise for directing is hard because there is little tangible evidence of the director’s work as we, as theatregoers, focus primarily on the actors. The story is theirs.

Sometimes a play gels in such a unique fashion there is no way to overlook the contributions coming from forces offstage. Such is the case with EPAC’s “Doubt: A Parable,” which opened Thursday, Sept. 7, at the Sheridan Bigler Theatre.

Under the direction of Kenneth Seigh, “Doubt” displays its full contrast of edginess and humor, fear and hope, perception and reality — a reality we can only see through our own personal filters of doubt.

Brian Noffke, as Father Flynn (left), and Susan Kresge, as Sister Aloysius, are part of the cast of “Doubt,” at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Chris Knight)

Under the looming shadow of a giant cross suspended from the theater ceiling, “Doubt” opens with a self-reflective monologue, a sermon from Father Brendan Flynn (Brian Noffke) who asks, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” It is 1964 at the St. Nicholas Catholic Church and School in Bronx, N.Y. Father Flynn’s sermon reflects on despair at a time of crisis in one’s faith. The speech sets the tone for what is to come, for he will become object of doubt.

After the sermon, we are whisked to the office of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Susan Kresge), the stern and fear-inducing head of the school. Sister Beauvier is a caricature of Catholic school leadership, rigid and unwavering. She spouts bits of wisdom we can only imagine were ingrained in her through repetition: “satisfaction is a vice;” “innocence is a form of laziness;” and “it’s not your place to be complacent.” She is both comic relief and driving antagonist to Father Flynn and her subordinate, Sister James (Michaela Naulty).

Behind the careful encouragement of Beauvier, Sister James finds a fault in the actions of Flynn, though she herself has doubts of its existence. Flynn has been seen showing special attention to a new student, Donald Muller (not portrayed), who also happens to be the school’s first black student. Sister James brings this knowledge, uneasily, to Beauvier who already had developed her suspicions about Flynn. The clergyman’s conduct is in question when Muller returns to Sister James’ class visibly shaken and smelling of alcohol after some alone time with Flynn.

Without concrete evidence we, like the characters, are forced to doubt the intentions of Father Flynn, who defends himself as merely looking out for the boy. The alcohol, contends Flynn, was of the boy’s own volition and any further transgressions go unspoken outright, but are heavily implied and denied by Flynn. The action between the characters is a subtle dance. Who believes what? Who did what? The only intent we are sure of is that of Beauvier, who seems set on forcing Flynn to admit to transgressions he vehemently dismisses.

The drama heightens when Beauvier summons Donald Muller’s mother (Yolanda Dwyer) to the school. Donald’s role as altar boy has been revoked due to his misuse of communion wine. Mrs. Muller defends her son and asks Beauvier to look the other way — no matter the infraction or suspected involvement of Father Flynn — so her son can graduate.

“You may think you are doing good, but the world is a hard place,” she tells Beauvier.

The cast of EPAC’s “Doubt: A Parable,” includes (left to right) Yolanda Dwyer, as Mrs. Muller; Brian Noffke, as Father Flynn; Susan Kresge, as Sister Aloysius; and Michaela Nulty, as Sister James.

I hung like a bystander at a tragic accident on every action, tried to read into every nuance, judged and judged again. What is “Doubt?” It is a look at our doubt in each other while struggling with the doubt in ourselves. The play is a gripping look at sexuality, race, and male privilege in 1964, which casts a reflection on where we are today as a society.

The intimacy of the cast and nearly flawless delivery of the tale unfolding leaves me in awe of Seigh’s direction. For one hour and 40 minutes these characters are real. The emotion is undeniable. Not without giving proper credit to the skill of the players, I must say it is how they came together that made this production so incredible. Think of a door. When passing through the entrance we see the door, perhaps feel the door as we push or pull it; we plan how to navigate the door, but we rarely think of the hinges that swing it open. The hinge is what makes the door work. Seigh is the hinge of “Doubt.”

After all, the director is unseen. He or she never takes the stage to deliver a beautiful soliloquy. The director does not take a bow at the end of the performance. We can, even if only in some metaphysical form of argument, doubt his or her existence. But, the force is there.

In the end, “Doubt” casts us into our own doubts as we leave the theatre draped in our own speculations. Just like Seigh writes in his playbill director’s notes: “Doubt” does not present us with easy answers but rather encourages us to examine our own beliefs, our own need to be certain in the face of uncertainty, and become willing to live in the question.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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