The best and worst part of live theatre is how fleeting it all is. Every single performance is a one-time-only, one-of-a-kind entity all its own; and in PEI, where most shows have such short runs, entire productions flash in and out of existence like fireworks, brilliant but brief.
Most of PEI’s smaller theatrical productions vanish forever after their one-and-only run, so it’s a rare treat to see such a show resurrected – especially a show as good as local director Paul Whelan’s version of John Patrick Shanley’s fiendishly clever, hauntingly ambiguous Broadway triumph Doubt.
Back in 2013, I reviewed ACT’s production of Doubt at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, directed by Whelan and Brenda Porter and starring Barb Rhodenizer as icily imperious Catholic school principal Sister Aloysius; Adam Gauthier as popular, progressive priest Father Flynn, whom Sister Aloysius suspects of pedophilia; Renae Perry as idealistic nun Sister James, caught in the middle of the Aloysius-Flynn clash, unsure of who or what to believe; and Tamara Steele as Mrs. Muller, mother of a boy Flynn may have abused.
That 2013 Doubt production usually ranks somewhere high in my ever-shifting top ten list of the all-time great PEI theatrical productions. So I was pretty excited when I heard that Sandstone Theatre Company was reviving this show at the Watermark Theatre, directed by Whelan and reuniting most of the 2013 cast (Jenna Marie replaces Perry as Sister James). The result is another great production, albeit differing from its predecessor in various ways.
As a venue, the Watermark lacks the historic heft and thematic resonance of St. Paul’s, not to mention the absence of the compelling live choral vocals from the 2013 production; however, as an actual theatre, Watermark surpasses St. Paul’s in terms of technical presentation: better sound and lighting, improved sight lines and blocking, even comfier seating (Watermark’s chairs, while stiffer than I’d like, still beat St. Paul’s posterior-punishing pews).
Gauthier and Rhodenizer remain superb as the leads, especially in their thrilling, escalating verbal clashes later in the show. Marie surpasses Perry as a softer yet more vividly emotional Sister James, sympathetic and moving, while Steele betters her 2013 outing as a more emphatic, more consistently audible Mrs. Muller. The venue change helps acoustically, but Steele has also grown as a performer, becoming a more confident and convincing theatrical presence.
Oddly, the cast has more script stumbles than I remember hearing in the 2013 show. Most of them are blink-and-you-miss-it moments which the actors either self-correct or skip past within a fraction of a second, though there was a rough patch in an early Rhodenizer-James exchange where it sounded like the duo lost their way for a while. Still, such missteps are the exceptions; most of the time, Whelan’s crack quartet have their script down cold.
Speaking of that script, Shanley’s play itself remains a compact, enigmatic gem, hinting at dark truths but never quite confirming anything, leaving characters and audience alike in an uneasily lingering state of doubt. If anything, the play seems even more relevant now in the long, dark shadow of Trump’s America, where truth seems harder to find than ever and influential wrongdoers often go unpunished; but unlike Trump, Sandstone’s Doubt is smart, thought-provoking and disturbing in a good way.