By Thomas Shamma
---- — This weekend, students at Merrimack College explore uncertainty, ambiguity and tension in a performance of “Doubt: A Parable,” a play by John Patrick Shanley.
“Doubt” takes place in a Catholic school in the Bronx and draws mood and context from the Kennedy assassination and the Civil Rights movement. The central question of the play is the well-being of Donald Muller, the school’s first African American student. Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a conservative nun with a long history at the school, suspects the new, progressive priest, the Rev. Brendan Flynn, of abusing him.
“What is truly wonderful about the play is that you and the person you are sitting next to will likely have very different understandings about what you have just witnessed,” said The Rev. Richard Piatt, director of Merrimack’s production of “Doubt” and an assistant professor in Merrimack’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts.
Almost all of the actors and crew are undergraduates at Merrimack College. The major roles of Flynn and Aloysius are being played by Kevin Welch and Michaela Lonati. Alexandrea Lynch is playing Sister James and Linda Tankersley, a staff member, is playing Mrs. Muller. Erin Beausoleil is an understudy for James at some of the performances.
Prior to the production last night, the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, was scheduled to sit with a panel in a discussion titled “Doubt, Certainty and the Nature of Public Discourse in America,” exploring the play’s themes.
“We are living in a courtroom culture,” Shanley wrote in his preface to the play. “We were living a celebrity culture, but that’s dead. Now we’re only interested in celebrities if they’re in court. We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict.”
In a telephone interview in advance of the performances, Shanley said when he wrote “Doubt” the political atmosphere was dangerously polarized.
“When I wrote that, it was during the run-up to the invasion in Iraq, and I was listening to all these pundits on television speaking with enormous conviction about weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “Anyone who questions that was seen as weak. When did that become a sign of weakness instead of a mark of wisdom?”
But he’s optimistic about where we are as a country now.
“We even now have a doubtful president, who has on occasion actually changed his mind in public, which I find a heartening situation,” he said. “And it has been held as weakness on his part, when he’s changed his mind in public, by some. But I think we should look to our leadership, to make adjustments in the direction we’re going.”
Shanley is enthusiastic about his interactions with students.
“I think it’s important for artists in cultural centers like New York City to get out nationally and interact with people at that formative stage in their lives,” he said. “I get something out of it, and I hope and think that students get something out of it as well.
“It’s good in every possible way for people in this culture to talk to each other and exchange ideas and impressions. Young people, they’re our best hope for the future and we need to support them and give them whatever information we have to offer.”
Currently Shanley has a play on Broadway, “Outside Mullingar,” that takes place on a farm in Ireland. He calls it “a romantic comedy with some dark overtones.”
“In that play I’m just reminding myself, and perhaps the audience, about what connection to the environment, to the land is,and how it affects your world view. It can give you a kind of wisdom we’re divorced from in the urban environment — and have some fun along the way,” he said.
“That’s where I was six weeks ago. Now I’m working on a different play and it’ll be quite different again — it’s a play about cynicism.”
If You Go What: "Doubt: A Parable." Where: The Rogers Center for the Arts, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover. When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20 and 21 and 22; 2 p.m. Feb. 22. How: Tickets are $10 general admission, $5 Merrimack College students and employees. Call the Rogers Center for the Arts at 978-837-5355 or visit them online at www.merrimack.edu/community/rogers/.