Those who've seen Lynda Clark's formidable performances as the embattled but calculating Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, or the Angel in Angels in America, could anticipate the emotional velocity she brings to John Patrick Shanley's 2004 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, Doubt: A Parable.
We saw it when she first assayed the role at Theatre in the Park in 2008. Now, in a strong Temple Theatre production, her work trumps that earlier achievement, which takes some doing. At the risk of impiety, when Clark's implacable Sister Aloysius squares off against Gus Allen's enigmatic Father Flynn in this tale of deep suspicion, set at a Bronx-based Catholic school in 1964, the resulting fireworks are somewhere between a WWE season-closer and an outright exorcism.
As the school's principal, Sister Aloysius is a decidedly grim gatekeeper—a pre-Vatican II disciplinarian for whom the decline of the fountain pen is another sign of a world in moral jeopardy. When informed by a teacher, Sister James (a luminous Theresa McGuirk), that the children are "uniformly terrified" of her, Sister Aloysius snaps, "Yes. That's how it works."
And anyway, she has graver problems to contend with. Sister James has seen one of her charges, a 12-year-old boy, behaving strangely after a private counseling session with Father Flynn. There was alcohol on the child's breath.
With limited latitude—and a senile monsignor as her immediate superior—Sister Aloysius must pursue her suspicions with care, gathering circumstantial evidence from the child's mother and other sources before an explosive reckoning in Shanley's second act.
Under artistic director Peggy Taphorn, the showdown feels like a prizefight. Both parties spar, feint and land solid blows. Exhausted, they turn away between rounds, as the advantage flickers one way and then the other. When Bertolt Brecht called for a theater where spectators choose sides and lean in, he must have had something like this in mind. Though a winner is decided, the truth remains more elusive in this gripping, timely tale.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Black hole son."