Review: Doubt (AstonRep Theatre)

| April 9, 2012
Julie Schroll as Sister James       

Written by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Derek Bertelsen  
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
thru May 5  |  tickets: $10-$15   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
        Read entire review


Nuanced performances reaffirm faith in great theatre

       (from left) Alexandra Bennett as Sister Aloysius, Tonya Simmons as Mrs. Muller

AstonRep Theatre Company presents

Review by Keith Glab

“Truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and has no clear resolution.”

Father Flynn’s words resonate with multiple meanings, and as with all great theatre, AstonRep’s Doubt proves rich and multifaceted in possible interpretations of the many ideas it proffers. The word “doubt” is used throughout the play with a slightly different meaning each time, and occasionally with multiple meanings at once.

Robert Tobin as Father Flynn in AstonRep's "Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley (photo credit: Jeremiah Barr)A sexual misconduct scandal set at a Catholic grade school in 1964 doesn’t seem particularly poignant at first. Modern day audiences have become desensitized to these infractions due to their sheer volume. John Patrick Shanley’s script handles all of the issues involved with such skill as to make an utterly compelling story.

Sister Aloysius (Alexandra Bennett), the principal of St. Nicholas Catholic School, suspects Father Flynn (Robert Tobin) of making advances on the school’s only African-American student. She enlists underling Sister James (Julie Schroll) to first monitor Flynn, and then to help confront him regarding his improper relationship with the boy. But Sister James is not convinced of any impropriety on Flynn’s part, so Aloysius speaks with the student’s mother (Tonya Simmons) about her suspicions and gets a surprising response. In the climactic confrontation between Aloysius and Flynn, the audience isn’t certain whether to sympathize with Flynn’s harassment from an obstinate nun or Aloysius appearing powerless to bring a dangerous priest to justice.

Audiences familiar with the 2008 film version of Doubt will associate the role of Sister Aloysius with Meryl Streep. Alexandra Bennett is charged with the daunting task of acting up to Streep’s standard, and she proves more than capable. Bennett makes the performance her own, giving the strict and intimidating Aloysius brief moments of warmth, humor, and vulnerability in what is sure to be one of the best performances of the theater year.

The rest of the cast shines as well. Tobin’s Flynn segues from charismatic to creepy so fluidly that the audience is unsure of what to make of him. Schroll gives Sister James an underlying strength behind her obsequiousness, and we see her faith in Father Flynn paralleled with her faith in God. Although Simmons only appears in one scene as Mrs. Muller, it contains a key revelation that makes Aloysius consider whether she should act against Flynn even if her suspicions about him are correct. Simmons ably matches Bennett’s stoic power in this interaction.

(from left) Julie Schroll as Sister James, Robert Tobin as Father Flynn, Alexandra Bennett as Sister Aloysius

Interestingly, given the setting, the detail of Donald Muller’s skin color isn’t crucial to the story. Race certainly gives the sisters another reason to consider why Flynn is singling out this particular boy, but the plot could have unfolded in a similar manner were Donald white. The device of having one of the story’s main characters never appear on stage works well in this instance. Without actually seeing Donald interact with the other characters, the audience is forced to make assumptions about him through the prisms of the characters’ dialogue, which fits beautifully with the themes of the play.

Director Derek Bertelsen makes great use of the cozy space at the Boho Studio Theatre by taking advantage of its full depth. The blocking never looks contrived, and we somehow do not lose the actors’ faces in a staging that utilizes more vertical than horizontal space. The theatre’s intimacy allows the audience to see every nuanced facial expression of the terrific cast, and that subtlety is a crucial element for this production.

While the opening night performance had its share of muddled lines, that barely distracted from the engrossing story, rich language, and captivating characters. This theatrical experience challenges the audience to consider their own convictions. What is Faith? What is Truth? What is Right? The only certainty is that Doubt needs to be experienced.

Rating: ★★★½

Doubt continues through May 5th at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 2pm.  Tickets are $10-$15, and are available by phone (773-828-9129) or online at (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 1 hour 25 minutes with no intermission)

Alexandra Bennett as Sister Aloysius, Julie Schroll as Sister James

Photos by Jeremiah Barr and Gerard Jamroz 




Alexandra Bennett (Sister Aloysius), Julie Schroll (Sister James), Tonya Simmons (Mrs. Muller), Robert Tobin (Father Flynn)

behind the scenes

Derek Bertelsen (director); Jeremiah Barr (asst. director, set design, photos); Samantha Barr (stage manager, lighting); Ray Kasper (lighting, sound design); June Eubanks (costumes); Amy Kasper (dramaturg); Lea Tobin (graphic design, props); Gerard Jamroz (photos)


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Category: 2012 Reviews, AstonRep Theatre, Boho Theatre, Heartland Studio Theatre, Keith Glab

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