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No doubt about the explosive power of “Doubt” at Writers Theatre

In 2002, in the wake of years of scandalous revelations and inaction, the Vatican issued guidelines for dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse by priests. It called for all cases to be reported to Rome, but made no mention of reporting the charges to local criminal authorities.

In 2004, a report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops detailed allegations of child sexual abuse against Catholic priests between 1950 and 2002. And in that same year, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Doubt: A Parable,” debuted Off Broadway, before moving to Broadway and then to the big screen. Provocative on every level, “Doubt” captured the temper of the times in a way that reached far beyond the doctrinaire. True to its title, it forced audiences to question everything.

The issue of abuse has certainly not gone away in the intervening decade. And now, Shanley’s blistering play has taken on a whole new life thanks to a riveting revival by Writers Theatre. With piercing direction by William Brown, and an electrifying cast that grabs hold of the story in the most profound yet subtle ways, the production is uniquely housed in a room inside the beautiful Glencoe Union Church, where designer Kevin Depinet has worked his latest “miracle” with a set that looks as if it had been lifted from the main sanctuary. All in all, “Doubt” is just another reminder of why Writers deserves the grand new building now under construction nearby.

‘DOUBT: A PARABLE’

Highly recommended

When: Through Aug. 2

Where: Writers Theatre at

Glencoe Union Church, 263 Park Ave., Glencoe

Tickets: $35 – $75

Info: (847) 242-6000;

http://www.writerstheatre.org

Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission

Set in 1964, a year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Shanley’s play unfolds at the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. The hierarchy at work is clear from early on: The church is run by men who protect their own, even if the school is run by a woman — Sister Aloysius (Karen Janes Woditsch, an actress of extraordinary truth, intensity and bravery — Chicago’s very own Meryl Streep).

A fiercely conservative “old school” nun, Sister Aloysius (who was married decades earlier, but whose husband was killed in World War II), is wary of the younger generation. This includes Father Flynn (Steve Haggard, in his second stellar performance of the season), the beloved parish priest and basketball coach at the school, and the even younger nun, Sister James (the radiant Eliza Stoughton), who teaches history, and is bursting with progressive ideas about connecting with her students that her principal will never accept.

As it happens, one of the students in Sister James’ class is 14-year-old Donald Muller, the school’s first African-American student, who was chosen to serve as an altar boy. For whatever reasons — and it might just be a sixth sense based on past experience, or it might be deep resentment of Father Flynn’s popularity — Sister Aloysius suspects the man of engaging in some sort of sexual misconduct with Donald. And she quite brilliantly manipulates Sister James to corroborate her suspicion.

She also calls in Donald’s mother (Ann Joseph, in a superbly subtle turn), who reveals things that Sister Aloysius is unable to fully understand or sanction. The principal then proceeds to call Father Flynn’s bluff in a way that only heightens her certainty. At the same time, Father Flynn explains his relationship with Donald to Sister James in a way that makes complete sense, and is filled with humanity. But the question of whether he is truly enlightened, or dangerously manipulative, cannot be avoided.

Who and what is to be believed? Crucial to the story is the fact that Sister Aloysius understands the power structure of the church and knows she cannot report her suspicions to the Monsignor.

Ann Joseph (left) and Karen Janes Woditsch in “Doubt: A Parable,” at Writers Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Ann Joseph (left) and Karen Janes Woditsch in “Doubt: A Parable,” at Writers Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

In a sense, everyone in this play, including the boy we never see, is destroyed. If Sister Aloysius is correct, then we come to see how the secrets that long plagued the church went unchecked. If she is wrong, then we come to fully understand the evils of innuendo and gossip, the latter the subject of a sermon beautifully written by Shanley and delivered by Haggard with all the necessary charm and ambiguity to keep doubt alive.

William Brown (who also directed Woditsch in her captivating portrayal of Julia Childs several years ago) invariably makes you hear each play he tackles as you’ve never quite heard it before. I’ve seen “Doubt” a number of times through the years, but this revival is revelatory. A genuine stunner.