GLOUCESTER - John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt: A Parable" unfolds with such quiet conviction, it's only when the spell is broken that we realize how hypnotizing it was. Like the folksy sermons delivered by the play's Father Flynn, the Gloucester Stage Company production seems obvious but sparkles with subtle moments that draw us in to this richly layered drama.
Although the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama was a star turn for actress Cherry Jones, at Gloucester director Eric C. Engel has chosen to balance the weight of the play equally among all four of the characters who drive the action. The effect is kaleidoscopic, since his approach gives a clearer view of the situation from four distinctly different angles and adds to the audience's gnawing uncertainly about where to place its sympathies.
At its simplest level, "Doubt," set in 1964 at the St. Nicholas School in the Bronx, follows the concern the principal, Sister Aloysius, has about the parish priest, Father Flynn, who also teaches the children phyiscal education. Her suspicions about his inappropriate attentions to a 12-year-old boy, who also happens to be the school's only black student, explode into accusations that change everything, and nothing.
Nancy E. Carroll plays Sister Aloysius as a woman wrapped tighter than a drum in the first few scenes, so rigid she believes the use of ballpoint pens marks the end of good penmanship and the suggestion to include "Frosty, the Snowman" in the school Christmas pageant is tantamount to heresy.
But as she interacts with Sister James (Melissa Baroni), a young teacher she's trying to guide, or Mrs. Muller (Kortney Adams), the mother of the boy Sister Aloysius believes Father Flynn "interfered" with, bits of her steely emotional certainty seem to chip away in front of our eyes. In her confrontation with Father Flynn, she wears her conviction like armor, but in the aftermath of her battle it's clear her efforts to be a vigilant gatekeeper for her students have taken a toll.
Lewis D. Wheeler is wonderfully low-key as Father Flynn, who claims his attentions to his young altar boy were motivated by compassion for an outcast who needed a friend. Whether delivering his parable-filled sermons or describing the best techniques for making a foul shot, Wheeler's Flynn comes across as a fresh-faced innocent, charming and sincere in a church attempting to communicate more directly with its parishioners. But when Sister Aloysius pins him like a butterfly specimen with her accusations, Wheeler squirms, and we find ourselves as unsettled by his reaction as we are by her attack.
Both Baroni and Adams bring out unexpected complexity in their characters. Baroni makes Sister James's crushing loss of idealism palpable, and her eagerness to accept a truth that's easy to understand almost desperate. As a mother called in to a meeting with her son's principal, Adams is classy and elegant, even as Mrs. Muller tries to explain another version of truth she and her family must cope with and endure.
Jenna McFarland Lord's angled set adds to the sharp edges of the drama, but Russ Swift's lighting is a wash of orange and gold that flattens the playing area rather than delineating and creating some depth.
Engel's measured approach to the characters offers new layers to a conflict that plays on ideas about racism, sexism, and intolerance, but most important, it casts doubt on unequivocal certainty of any kind.