Examining the elements of Doubt

By Ryan Pike

Since its advent, theatre has been used to examine various facets of society. Throughout its history, the stage has seen the in-depth analysis of love, hate, lust, betrayal, rage, fear and a litany of other topics. Beginning with the line, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Theatre Calgary’s presentation of Doubt: A Parable, examines the interplay between doubt and certainty.

Set in 1964, the play centres around allegations of misconduct between a priest and a young boy at a Catholic school in New York City’s Bronx area. Two-time Betty Mitchell award-winner Trevor Leigh portrays the friendly Father Flynn, whose friendship with the school’s first black student sets off a fire storm of controversy when the strict Sister Aloysius (Nancy Palk) suspects Flynn’s friendship has become inappropriate.

“It’s one of those great 90-minute truly ‘sit on the edge of your seat, what’s going to happen next’ plays,” says Leigh. “It’s a mystery, in a sense, too. It’s a really engaging, really intelligent play. You see some plays that wear their literary merit on their sleeve and this is not one of those. It’s just a great crackling drama, which is immensely intelligent, but not sort of on the sleeve.”

Doubt first came to Leigh’s attention thanks to Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum. The duo worked on a production together for Alberta Theatre Projects when Garnhum recommended the Broadway production to Leigh, who promptly flew to New York to see it. The setting and subject matter appealed to Leigh’s roots.

“I was an altar boy in school and my parents are very active in the church, so I have that sort of history,” shares Leigh. “I studied acting in New York. I spent a fair amount of time in New York, specifically the Bronx. I recently went back to New York and went to church in the Bronx and checked out what life was like in that part of the world.”

Leigh notes the crux of the play– the issue of Father Flynn’s guilt– was a subject of much debate during rehearsals. Doubt playwright and Broadway director John Patrick Shanley has revealed in interviews that only he and the actor playing Flynn were privy to his guilt and Leigh says the Theatre Calgary production maintains that tradition.

“I’m a big fan of secrets in any play, that much more so in this play,” notes Leigh. “I haven’t discussed my guilt or not guilt with the other actors in the play. I think having that secret is really important. In rehearsal, I’ve made the choice to play it one way, as I’m guilty, and then the next time we do a run of the play do it as if I’m not guilty, and just see what sticks and what’s best for the production. I won’t tell you which one I’m taking, though.”

Given Leigh’s status as a rabid fan of the play’s Broadway production, it’s surprising to discover he has yet to see the recent film adaptation of the play. He says resisting the temptation to see the film had a lot to do with maintaining his own interpretation of the story and characters.

“I’m a big fan of [Philip Seymour] Hoffman; he’s such a great actor,” says Leigh. “If the film was out last year, I would go see the film, but because it’s so close, my fear is I’m such a fan of his work that I might have problems shaking his impression of the part off. I have, obviously, my own interpretation.”

The subject matter of the play makes it natural for audience members to see parallels between events in their own lives or in the news. Leigh thinks that Doubt: A Parable may prompt audience members to examine decisions they’ve made in the past.

“A lot of this play is that whole idea of we don’t sit in a place of doubt very long,” says Leigh. “To be in a place of indecision is generally considered weak. We’re commended for making a choice, for making a decision, and I think sometimes in society we’re celebrated for making a decision rashly, frankly. To live in that place of doubt is what I think Shanley’s investigating.”