by Lynn on November 1, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person produced by B & E Theatre in association with The Church of the Holy Trinity, Eaton Centre, Toronto, Ont. Runs until November 13, 2022.

Written by John Patrick Shanley

Directed by Stewart Arnott

Costumes by Lara Berry

Lighting by Gareth Crew

Sound by Stewart Arnott, Jack Considine, & J. D. Smith

Cast: Brian Bisson

Deborah Drakeford

Emma Nelles

Kim Nelson

A dandy production of a bracing play that challenges us to confront our doubts.

The Story. It’s 1964, the Bronx in New York City. The assassination of President Kennedy shook the population, made them unsteady in what they believed in. Sister Aloysius is the principal of her Catholic school. She is a watchful, perceptive, stern, pragmatic administrator. She knows all the tricks of every prankster-child in the school. She knows that when a kid has to go home with a bloody nose, he gave himself the injury by shoving a ballpoint pen up his nostril. Sister Aloysius wants to ban ballpoint pens and restrict the kids to using fountain pens. She believes in formality, order and procedure in all things. She is suspicious of unusual behavior.

She is suspicious of Father Flynn, a popular parish priest who teaches sports at the school. She believes that Father Flynn is doing something improper with a young Black boy named Donald Muller at the school. She asks a young teacher in the school, Sister James, if she has seen anything improper regarding Father Flynn. She asks Sister James to be vigilant and report anything odd that she sees. Sister James says that she has not seen anything suspicious but then remembers that she thought she smelled liquor on Donald’s breath.

Sister Aloysius confronts Father Flynn. He denies anything happening between him and the boy. He says he caught Donald drinking the altar wine but chose to keep it quiet because if the news got out Donald would lose his position as an altar boy. Now that Sister Aloysius knows, the boy must lose his position. Sister Aloysius is not convinced by this story. She speaks to the boy’s mother in her office. Mrs. Muller wants to ignore the possibility that the priest is showing special attention to her son for whatever reason because the boy has such a hard time at home. His father beats him if he does anything wrong; if he is not the boy he expects him to be, and certainly if he lost his position as an altar boy. Mrs. Muller is trying to protect her son at all cost. Mrs. Muller wants to forget the matter until June when Donald will graduate to high school.

Sister Aloysius is shaken by this encounter but does not push her agenda here. Instead, she is relentless with Father Flynn, whom she confronts with her suspicions. “You have no proof,” he cries. “But I have my certainty,” she hisses. An answer that is a gut-punch, no matter where our doubt is about the truth.

The Production. The production takes place in The Church of the Holy Trinity. (a quibble…the echo is sometimes a problem, so we just listen harder). It’s billed as an immersive production, but that isn’t quite accurate, even though Father Flynn (a thoughtful, low-key Brian Bisson) enters from the back of the Church to the front to begin his sermon, thus making it seem as if he is preaching to us, his congregation. But for the rest of the production, the action is performed on the raised ‘stage’, clearly separated from the audience.

Sister Aloysius (Deborah Drakeford) enters her office through a doorway up centre. She sits at her desk and methodically checks work. As Deborah Drakeford plays her, Sister Aloysius is straight-backed, upright with just a touch of rigidity. Her hands are almost always clasped in front of her. She summons Sister James (Emma Nelles) to her office to comment on her enthusiasm for her students and her subjects—Sister Aloysius is not happy about that enthusiasm. She prefers a more controlled demeanor—perhaps like herself. While Sister James is concerned for the health and welfare of the student with a nose bleed, Sister Aloysius is more suspicious, knowing that the student caused the nose bleed by shoving a ballpoint pen up his nose.

Sister James likes and admires Father Flynn for his position in the Church and for his rapport with his students. But Sister Aloysius puts a note of doubt in Sister James’ mind when she is asked if Sister James is aware of any odd behaviour with Donald Muller and Father Flynn. Sister James’ trust and belief in people and the system are compromised, put into doubt when Sister Aloysius asks her to be watchful. As Sister James, Emma Nelles gives sensitive, initially buoyant performance of a young nun embracing her calling. She loves teaching and passing on that enthusiasm to her students. But under Sister Aloysius’ scrutiny you can see the enthusiasm slowly seep away and doubt take its place.

Sister Aloysius invites Mrs. Muller to come and discuss the situation with her son Donald. It’s only one scene, but Kim Nelson as Mrs. Muller squeezes every second of humanity, concern, trepidation, confliction and capitulation out of that scene. Kim Nelson gives a powerful performance in that one scene. Mrs. Muller is perfectly turned out in Lara Berry’s costume of a skirt, top, coat shoes and cotton gloves. She holds a handbag in front of her with both hands, but those cotton gloves just finished the look and squeezed my heart at the same time. As Mrs. Muller says, she has been ‘summoned’ to the ‘principal’s office’ to discuss her son, and she is going to be dressed perfectly for a kind of protection for this situation. Kim Nelson carries Mrs. Muller’s home-life-baggage through the door of that office. It’s in her face and body language. She knows her son and loves him no matter what. She knows her husband beats the boy for any transgression and she will do anything to protect him. So she tells Sister Aloysius that if Father Flynn is the only friend and protector her boy has then she will look the other way and ignore Sister Aloysius’ concerns. It’s a formidable performance against the formidable performance of Deborah Drakeford.

This is not to say that Sister Aloysius is a total harridan. Absolutely not true. Deborah Drakeford as Sister Aloysius illuminates a woman who has known loss and sorrow. She has found solace and order in the Church. In her own way she knows what is going on in that school and knows every single student and their individuality. She knows that someone will eventually hit Donald Muller. She is aware of the angry, racist world in which they all live. Sister Aloysius cares deeply for everybody in her charge. She just shows it in a contained, objective way. She is determined to keep everybody safe in that school and that means going after anyone who might do harm, in this case Father Flynn.

As played by Brian Bisson, Father Flynn is personable, affable and a winning teacher who charms his students as a basketball coach and their priest. He urges the students to do their best in basketball practice and then invites them for cookies in the rectory. This is a quiet, playful performance by Brian Bisson when interacting with the students. But Bisson becomes combative when up against the suspicions of Sister Aloysius. He invokes procedure when dealing with her suspicions. She is not above using trickery.

Who is telling the truth. The beauty of the play and the production, under Stewart Arnott’s careful direction, is that we are always in doubt. Stewart Arnott establishes the relationships in a nuanced, subtle way. Scenes build steadily and are subtly compelling until we can’t move for looking and being caught up in the high stakes of the arguments.

Even in the last scene with Sister Aloysius and Sister James, there is doubt, but it has shifted craftily by the playwright, leaving us all to think, wonder and contemplate what we believe, think and are not sure about.   

Comment. As Father Flynn says in the first lines: “What do you do when you are not sure?” John Patrick Shanley has created a crackly good play that has us question for the whole of the play, what we are looking at. Is Father Flynn innocent? Is Sister Aloysius guilty of being a vigilante without proof? Where are our sympathies? Where is our doubt? Terrific play and gripping production.

B & E In association with The Church of the Holy Trinity presents:

Runs until: November 13, 2022.

Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (one intermission)

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