Who Do You Believe?

with Doubt, CVTG tackles tough questions

James Johonnott, photos by Andrea Paulseth

“i’ll take nun of this!” Tim Carter (left) and Deb Brown star as Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius in the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild’s production of Doubt: A Parable, which will be staged in January.
“i’ll take nun of this!” Tim Carter (left) and Deb Brown star as Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius in the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild’s production of Doubt: A Parable, which will be staged in January.

The subject matter of the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild’s newest production, Doubt: A Parable, stands out as unusually intense for a community theater production in the Chippewa Valley. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley is set during the fall of 1964 at the fictional St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, New York. Sister Aloysius (Deb Brown), the school’s strict and conservative principal, learns from Sister James (Rose Dolan-Neill), an impressionable younger nun, of a potentially inappropriate meeting between a priest and a student. After following up on the claim, Sister Aloysius – without evidence – accuses Father Flynn (Tim Carter), a beloved parish priest, of engaging in sexual misconduct with the school’s first and only African-American student.

Director Arthur Grothe was eager to bring a work of this intensity to local audiences. He describes the play as cerebral and full of subtleties. While the play may grapple with big questions, Grothe’s aim is to build tension by keeping the ideas discussed in the play rooted firmly in action. “Each character has strong needs, wants, and desires that come through from start to finish,” he says.

Grothe outlined several conflicts at work in Doubt. The play takes place in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council, a time when the Roman Catholic Church was struggling with the idea of modernity and transforming itself into a more inclusive institution. This adds a political dynamic to the struggle between conservative Aloysius and progressive Flynn. Race is also a key conflict in the story. Mrs. Muller (Selika Ducksworth-Lawson), the mother of the student in question, worked hard to get her son into St. Nicholas. Grothe explained that because she is African-American, she worries about causing a disturbance in the school that might force her son back into public education. The play also explores the effect accusations have on the accused and how they can transform someone’s life.

As Sister Aloysius tries to get the truth out of Father Flynn, the play explores themes such as moral certainty, belief, and doubt in our institutions. The themes in Doubt are timely as well. When asked what effect the divisive 2016 election has on watching the play, Grothe pointed to the rise of public concerns over “fake news” and character-based attacks. “If I ask you to prove that you didn’t do something, it shifts the burden of proof and makes defending yourself impossible,” Grothe said.

According to Grothe, auditions for the play were well-attended, which he believes indicates an eagerness to take on challenging plays and subject matter. “Watching the actors really get into the intensity and the strong connections of the play has been a rewarding experience,” he said. “They delve right into the psychological tension of the play.” If Grothe has his way, audiences will be debating what really happened as soon as they leave the theater.

The Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild presents Doubt: A Parable • Jan. 12-14 and 19-21 at 7:30pm, and Jan. 15 and 22 at 1:30pm • the Grand Theatre, 102 W. Grand Avenue, Eau Claire • $22 adults, $10 youth/students/active military • cvtg.org • (715) 832-7529

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