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Pair of Catholic-themed plays at ATC would have mass appeal

Lance Baker stars as Father Flynn American Theater Company’s producti'Doubt' part 'The Catholic Repertory.'  |  Peter Coombs Photography

Lance Baker stars as Father Flynn in American Theater Company’s production of "Doubt," part of "The Catholic Repertory." | Peter Coombs Photography

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‘THE CATHOLIC REPERTORY’

‘DOUBT’ (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) & ‘AGNES OF GOD’ (RECOMMENDED)

When: Through Nov. 4

Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron

Tickets: $38-$43 (each show)

Info: (773) 409-4125; atcweb.org

Updated: November 14, 2012 6:03AM



Just to clear the incense from the air: You very definitely do not need to be Catholic (whether of the practicing, lapsed, “recovering” or other variety) to be moved and intrigued by the very different stories told in “Doubt,” John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and “Agnes of God,” John Pielmeier’s hit drama that first came to Broadway three decades ago.

The spiritual, moral, ethical and (possibly) criminal issues wrestled with in these two works — which comprise the immensely ambitious Catholic Repertory program devised and superbly staged by PJ Paparelli, artistic director of American Theater Company – are universal. And watching these stories unfold — as the fallout from years of revelations about sex abuse in the church can still be felt, and, more broadly, as questions about the tension between religion and modernity seem more fraught than ever — gives them a particular vividness. In addition, experiencing the work of the small contingent of exceptional actors who play roles in each play offers its own special rewards.

But before going any further, a note about the completely reconfigured interior of ATC. It is nothing short of spectacular, creating a broadly open space that exposes the bare brick walls and mullioned windows of the building itself — a space that scenic designer Scott Davis (in collaboration with lighting master Jess Klug) has enhanced with a stunning apse framework, polished wood floors and a spare autumnal garden walk. It’s a stunner, and it sends your gaze upward.

Shanley’s 70-minute, knot-tight “Doubt” (subtitled “A Parable”) is the stronger of the two works, in part because it can easily be seen as applicable to the secular as well as the religious world.

Set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1984, it involves four fiercely drawn characters. Sister Aloysius (a riveting portrayal by veteran actress Kate Skinner) is the strong-willed, conservative-minded principal of the school who clearly chafes at the church’s male hierarchy. She also harbors suspicions about the eloquent, charismatic parish priest and sports coach, Father Flynn (Lance Baker, that master of language, who keeps us guessing about his guilt or innocence long after the lights go down).

Aloysius, a shrewd manipulator, plants seeds of doubt in the very young, enthusiastic and impressionable Sister James (Sadieh Rifai, who easily exudes a radiant spirit that cannot be squelched). And she ultimately suggests that the school’s first and only African American student might be the victim of abuse by Flynn. Aloysius’ fiery and shocking meeting with the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Penelope Walker is red hot here), suggests even more is going on in all this than meets the eye.

This is a stunning production. And not only do its actors surpass the very considerable performances given by the show’s Broadway cast, but they reveal the full power of Shanley’s probing, provocative play.

Pielmeier’s gothic-hysteria-infused “Agnes of God” (inspired by a true case that unfolded in upstate New York) is a more problematic work built around notions of sexual suppression and Catholic dogma.

It is set in motion after Sister Agnes (Rifai), a novice nun, gives birth in the convent, and is accused of strangling her baby with its umbilical cord. The intensely spiritual Agnes, who was long abused by her mother, and who may be profoundly mentally ill, insists the child was the product of a virgin conception. And the far from naive Mother Superior (Skinner) would prefer to keep the myth going for many complex personal and political reasons.

Equally complex factors drive Dr. Martha Livingstone (a relentless Walker), the psychiatrist brought in to decide whether Agnes is sane, or eligible for an insanity plea. Though she long ago rejected God in favor of science, Livingstone’s feverish interactions with both the Mother Superior and Agnes, as well as with her own inner demons, suggest she is still very much in limbo.

On some level Pielmeier’s contrived-feeling play suggests the almost heretical notion that extreme religious faith can be a form of mental illness. On the other hand, it suggests some form of faith is essential to survival. Food for thought.



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