Thursday, May 01, 2008

Blast from the past: 'Doubt'

Friend, on YM: I know Cherie Gil is fierce in movies, but is she any good on stage?
Me: Huh? You didn't see her in Doubt, or at least The Sound of Music?
Friend: She was in The Sound of Music?
Me: Yeah, Rep's version, as the Baroness. Wait--lemme post my review of Doubt sa blog.
Friend: Aynaku, you'll make me read again!
Me: Duh.

[PDI, June 19, 2006]

SHE HATES LONG NAILS, ballpoint pens, Christmas pageants. She thinks art and dance subjects are a waste of time. As principal of a working-class grade school, she feels no need to cozy up to the kids, believing them deserving of an iron hand instead. She is quick, snappish, efficient. She’d outpester any pest, drive a hornet from its nest, throw a whirling dervish out of whirl...

Ooops, wrong nun.

But how, indeed, do you solve a problem like Sister Aloysius, that Rottweiler in a wimple embodied with such implacable authority by the film actress Cherie Gil in Atlantis Productions’ “Doubt, A Parable,” now running at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza, Makati?

Those who’ve lived a good part of their movie-going lives relishing the sight of Gil chewing the scenery as the resident party wrecker in many a Viva melodrama might think Sr. Aloysius is not much of a stretch for the actress. This nun, after all, is also a tormentor, a cold fish, a “block of ice,” as Father Flynn (Niccolo Manahan), the object of her unwanted scrutiny in this play, so describes her.

Perish the thought. Gil’s deliciously rococo acting in local movies (Valentina, anyone, opposite a hapless Anjanette Abayari in “Darna: Ang Pagbabalik?”) prepares no one for the extraordinarily subtle work she delivers in “Doubt.”

Playing a headstrong nun who suspects a priest of molesting a boy and won’t stop at nothing to prove her hunch, Gil’s performance is complex, gripping, meticulously constructed—a rampart of glacial rectitude in a world close to meltdown. So detailed is this portraiture that Sr. Aloysius’ character becomes both opaque and open at the same time, allowing you to sense the powerful passions percolating beneath her frozen skin.

Buddy talks
Consider the constraints she is in. It is 1964, and the ferment of Vatican II is bringing profound, often discomfiting changes to the Catholic Church, none of them good in Sr. Aloysius’ eyes.

Where children needed firm but detached guidance, now the young priest Fr. Flynn, vanguard of new ideas about a more touchy-feely Church, goes for buddy talks and ice cream sessions with the boys. He also likes sugar on his tea, and thinks “Frosty the Snowman” would be a good addition to the Christmas pageant. (“‘Frosty the Snowman’ espouses a pagan belief in magic,” warns Sr. Aloysius.)

This sort of zealotry has always been fair game for caricature, as our beloved childhood memories of terror nuns affirm.

“Children need warmth, kindness, understanding! What does she give them? Rules,” complains Fr. Flynn.

It’s not merely rules, however, and their increasingly fluid nature, that Sr. Aloysius is all choked up about. Once a married woman before taking up the habit, she is no naive girl seeking refuge in convent vows. Sharp, well-intentioned and capable, she is also aware that she belongs to a lower caste in the Catholic Church, where pastors and bishops, the governing class, are ever finicky about position and protocol.

Sr. Aloysius can only chafe, quietly, at the arbitrariness of her place in the ecclesiastical pecking order.

“I’m not answerable to you,” Fr. Flynn tells her when confronted. “If you are dissatisfied with that, I suggest you speak to Monsignor Benedict.”

Vigilant spirit
Sr. Aloysius’ inviolable sense of certitude, then, does not derive from a simplistic, incurious mind, but from an eternally vigilant spirit. This woman has had to navigate the choppy waters of marriage and widowhood, convent life, institutional politics and social upheaval to be where she’s at. She is not about to go all warm, fuzzy and complacent just because much of the world has grown slack. Truth, or how she sees it, is her bulwark. Anything less would be surrender.

“You have not the slightest proof of anything,” Fr. Flynn reminds her heatedly, when she demands that he confess. “You have no right to act on your own! You are a member of a religious order. You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us!”

“But I have my certainty!,” she declares. “I will do what needs to be done, Father, if it means I’m damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me.”

Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius’ withering clash of wills makes for a thrilling, suspenseful battle, heightened all the more by the pristine state of their field of combat: the conscience of Sr. James (Cathy Azanza), an impressionable young nun who must choose between Sr. Aloysius’ bleak, utilitarian view of the world, or Fr. Flynn’s suspiciously flexible orthodoxy.

More to the point, the ripped-from-the-headlines currency of this war raises unsettling questions: When is a hunch enough to justify an obsession of Javert-like proportions? Is destruction of a good name subservient to saving a child, no matter how scant the proof? Can doubt, as Fr. Flynn puts it, really “be as powerful and sustaining as certainty?”

Shanley’s play, which won four Tony Awards last year including Best Play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, offers no neat answers or convenient red herrings to justify one point or the other. By acknowledging the prismatic nature of truth and the often-murky motivations of the heart, “Doubt” ineffably crosses over from being a story of some topical immediacy to the realm of parable.

Exemplary turns
The performances are exemplary across the board, paced by Gil’s forbidding Sr. Aloysius. Manahan’s Fr. Flynn skillfully conveys the ingratiating earnestness of a fresh pastor eager to do good--and look good--to his young wards. One might wish for a more combative adversary to Sr. Aloysius, but his complete subjugation only highlights Sr. Aloysius’ own devastating moment of reckoning in the play’s final scene.

Azanza as the callow Sr. James tends to be floridly weepy in some scenes, but she plays her character’s insecurities touchingly. And Jay Glorioso does a brief but disturbing turn as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy in question, whose own sense of right and wrong is perhaps as compromised as the truth at the heart of Sr. Aloysius’ campaign.

Together, these four actors find a quietly eloquent pitch to Shanley’s play. A model of economy and punch, “Doubt” wastes no words in its less-than-two-hours run, and it’s also very funny in places. (Sr. James: “I want my students to feel they can talk to me.” Sr. Aloysius: “They’re children. They can talk to each other.”)

Does this nun ever doubt herself? The play builds the case that she doesn’t. When a fissure does appear, the moment is shattering, and Gil’s reading of a pivotal final line--“In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God. Of course, there’s a price”--literally becomes life-altering for her character.

Consider yourself deprived if you miss this sterling production, directed with restraint by Chari Arespacochaga. (The spare set is by Mio Infante, lights by Johnsy Reyes and original musical scoring by Manman Angsico.)

It’s a brilliant play, and Gil’s is a stellar turn. Of these, “Doubt” brooks no doubts.

PLUS: “Lavinia goes to the nunnery”--or how Philippine cinema's classiest villain takes to wearing a wimple in her first major stage outing.

1 comment:

jayclops said...

Is this the Doubt that also has an upcoming Hollywood version? Not familiar with the play but the film adaptation has Meryll Streep as the nun, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in it.

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