'Doubt' delivers parable in black, white and grays

The most important thing about "Doubt" is that, at the end, we walk away with some.

If we're too much on the side of the Catholic school principal who accuses a priest of interfering sexually with a student, the play is unbalanced. If we're absolutely certain the priest is getting railroaded unfairly out of a job, ditto. Our feelings must seesaw back and forth between empathy for him and an unsettling trust in her.

Director Gina Stewart and an adept Theater Charlotte cast manage this balancing act with their production of John Patrick Shanley's 2004 drama.

At first, Father Flynn (Dave Blamy) wins us over with his thoughtful, folksy sermons and his seemingly innocent fondness for an unhappy student, Donald Muller. Young Sister James (Emily Rast), a new teacher at the parish school Donald attends, accepts his explanations of suspect behavior gratefully, as would most of us.

Yet steely Sister Aloysius (Katherine Goforth) bases her feelings of anxiety on a touch here, a reaction there, and plays her lone hand with the cool implacability of a gambler. By evening's end, we can't help but wonder if she's correct.

We also can't help refracting our feelings about these characters through the unhappy recent history of the Catholic Church, where child molestations were sometimes covered up by transferring offenders to new parishes. Toward the end of those revelations, many of us probably became incapable of assuming innocence until guilt was proven, and those suspicions have to affect our view of this play. (Shanley knew they would, but I'll bet he also wants us to fight them.)

For a play that is physically small - four characters, one 90-minute act, one set consisting of a garden to our right and Aloysius' office to our left - "Doubt" has large ambitions.

It takes place in 1964, when the mood of joy from JFK's "Camelot" presidency has been shattered. The Catholic Church muffles the voices of women and limits their power. The Civil Rights Act has yet to be passed, so Donald is a double outsider: not only black, but realizing in eighth grade he may be gay. His mother (Iesha Hoffman) must deal with multiple issues in her one overburdening scene, and Donald remains a plot device instead of a living (if unseen) character.

If you don't know this story, I'm pretty sure it will sweep you up in the struggle of wills. But on my fourth go-round (counting the 2008 film), I got stuck asking one question.

Why is Aloysius so relentless from the start? There's no reason to think she has spent her life ferreting out pederasts or suffered from abuse at the hands of any. She admits early on that she has no concrete evidence, yet she tells Flynn nothing he could say would change her mind (which makes the last scene especially improbable).

The most interesting person - not only the most complex, but the only one who changes - is Sister James, who refuses to believe that love and compassion matter less in the classroom than discipline and fear.

If we identify with anyone, it has to be this born teacher. Rast makes her Theatre Charlotte debut - her local debut, as far as I know - and stands out amid a convincing group of players. It's difficult to depict happy innocence without making it seem treacly or juvenile, but she pulls that off.

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