Penn State Centre Stage drama places ‘Doubt’ in community with encore performances

Penn State Centre Stage’s current stage drama certainly resonates in a community that has recently dealt with its share of sensitive issues. “Doubt: A Parable” will be presented at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center through Sept. 5.

“Doubt” was written by John Patrick Shanley and was winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony Award for best play. For this Centre Stage show, the production will be directed by theater professor Jim Wise.

The drama takes place in 1964 at St. Nicholas, a Catholic Church and school located in the Bronx. The school’s principal, Sister Aloysius, played by Jane Ridley, is a senior nun of the Sisters of Charity Order. She suspects that their new priest, Father Brendan Flynn, is engaging in improper behavior with some of the students, in particular the school’s first black student, Donald Muller. During that year, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was in the midst of its many controversial reforms to modernize the Catholic Church. Sister Aloysius is a traditionalist, a disciplinarian, a teacher and driven to protect her young charges from any impropriety.

“Doubt” is Ridley’s last production before she retires from the School of Theatre.

“This play is about the gray area between doubt and certainty,” Ridley said. “It is about the rush to judgment in an increasingly litigious society. The playwright says it best in his preface to the script for ‘Doubt’: ‘There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most dangerous, important, and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.’ ”

Kevin Murphy portrays Father Flynn, who has embraced the new reforms of the Catholic Church and has begun to implement them.

“Father Flynn has taken a particular interest in a new transfer student, (Muller), who is having problems both at home and in school,” Murphy said. “Sister Aloysius, the nun in charge of the school, believes my behavior with the boy to be inappropriate.”

Murphy received a BFA in acting at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his MFA in acting from Penn State in 2007.

“This play kicks off with a lot of humor and good intentions from people who genuinely care about each other and the students in their charge,” he said. “As it continues, the conflicts between the characters builds to more and more dramatic extremes so that audiences will be hanging on every word, every movement.”

Although the plot does not depict a true life story, certain themes contained in the drama were drawn from Shanley’s own life.

“According to the playwright, one or two of the characters are based on real-life people from his experiences as a youth growing up with a Catholic school education in the Bronx, but the story itself is fictional,” Wise said.

“It is my hope that ... this play will speak to their heart and transform them,” Murphy said. “Even if you’re not normally a theatergoer, this is one you really don’t want to miss.”

For this production, Wise said the subject matter can have a positive effect outside the theater.

“ ‘Doubt’ is a play that is extraordinarily relevant to our community here today,” he said. “It is my hope that our production not only encourages discussion and debate about the play itself but also carries over into our audience’s public and private lives.”