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The Barksdale Theatre's latest production, "Doubt: A Parable," focuses on Sister Aloysius (Irene Ziegler), the strict-as-a-straitjacket principal of a 1960s Catholic school. Just when you start to think this no-nonsense nun is nothing but an extreme starched shirt, she reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of every student in the school, the side effect of her obvious concern for each of them. And just when you think she must be crazy to think that the school's young priest, Father Flynn (Duke Lafoon), has done something despicable, it is revealed that he has changed jobs frequently, raising suspicions about past indiscretions.
And just when you think that she is going to shock and dismay a mother of one of her students (Katherine Louis) with her allegations, well, it is Sister Aloysius who is dismayed instead.
This series of expectation-defying moments makes "Doubt" an edgy and engrossing delight. Under Keri Wormald's meticulous direction, the Barksdale's cast doesn't just do justice to John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning script; it delivers a precision-cut gem of a production, each facet sharp and sparkling.
The show begins with Father Flynn delivering a compelling sermon about doubt and faith. In it, a man lost at sea sets a course by consulting the stars, but on succeeding nights, clouds prohibit him from confirming his progress. Should he stay the course when doubts afflict him? The story foreshadows the course Sister Aloysius will take when she begins to suspect Father Flynn of taking advantage of the school's only African-American student, Donald Muller.
As Aloysius, Ziegler embodies a severe old-school ethic that is two parts Scripture and one part frustration at the church patriarchy. She does nothing to soften the nun's hard edges and particularly shines in small, off-balance moments, like when she's caught listening to a transistor radio or finds the impertinent Flynn sitting in her chair. Lafoon is exceptional as Flynn, slightly bullying in his pointed references to church policy but extremely charming with his rhetoric and youthful idealism. There's no way he could be a bad guy
Lafoon and Zeigler share the spotlight with aplomb in this show, but it is Louis as Mrs. Muller who gets my nod for top performer. The mix of anxiety, resolve, anger and defiance that she runs through in her 10-minute face-off with Ziegler is gripping. Though hers is a supporting role, Maggie Roop provides the heart and soul of the production with her finely drawn portrayal of Sister James, the young teacher caught between Aloysius' insistence she toughen up and Flynn's entreaties to her trusting nature.
The story plays out on a gorgeous set designed by Phil Hayes, dominated by a church courtyard complete with stone benches and the Virgin Mary. While I wished the action in Sister Aloysius' office, set at the back of the stage, had been closer to the audience, the courtyard proved the perfect location for the show's emotional conclusion.
My only quibble with the script is Shanley's occasional propensity for inappropriately clever quips; a final cutting remark about Flynn's nails is particularly jarring. Still, no moment is wasted in this taut, 85-minute show, and this economy pays off in a riveting night of theater that pays many dividends in the intense post-show discussions it is sure to inspire. S"Doubt: A Parable" runs at Barksdale's Willow Lawn location through March 22. Tickets are $38. Call 282-2620.