Brian Bisson as Fr. Flynn in B&E Theatre’s Doubt: A Parable. Photo by Dahlia Katz

'Doubt' seeks the truth over certainty

By  Joe Szekeres, Catholic Register Special
  • October 27, 2022

B&E Theatre is presenting John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, one of my favourite plays, at the Church of the Holy Trinity behind Toronto’s Eaton Centre. A clever idea to immerse the play in a Church, but not a Catholic Church.

Doubt: A Parable takes place in 1964 when so many changes occurred worldwide and there were strong feelings of uncertainty and wondering where one turns. U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. There were changes in behaviour, dress, morality, race, culture and religion, especially in the Roman Catholic world with Vatican II. The Catholic Church opened its windows to the modern world, updated the liturgy, gave a larger role to laypeople, introduced the concept of religious freedom and started a dialogue with other religions.

What was originally thought to bring people together in its search for truth created a vast schism in its early years, leading many people to experience forms of doubt in their own lives. 

And what is the cost of this moment of doubt? Are we as an audience and as humans ever certain of anything in search of the truth? That is the reason to see the play, which introduces Sr. Aloysius (Deborah Drakeford), a Bronx school principal, who takes matters into her own hands when she suspects the young Fr. Flynn (Brian Bisson) of improper relations with one of the male students. There is a turning point in the play when we meet the young lad’s mother (Kim Nelson). We also meet the lad’s instructor, Sr. James (Emma Nelles), who loves teaching but is at a crossroads of doubt when she learns of this possible indiscretion between the priest (whom she highly respects) and her pupil. 

Why was the decision made to open a new theatre company — this is B&E’s first production — and introduce its inaugural season with Doubt?

For Bisson, who along with his wife Emma Campbell founded B&E Theatre, place and play go hand in hand. He thought about special productions of plays he witnessed that were site-specific and that thinking outside the box encouraged him to keep looking. Bisson has always liked Doubt’s story and says the script is far better than the film. He has also loved Shanley’s visceral writing that spoke to him in line and truth. 

Although raised Catholic, Bisson now considers himself lapsed in the faith and his connection with the Church skewed since his teenage years for personal reasons. But Doubt has allowed him to come to terms with some of the issues he has personally faced regarding the faith.

Canadian Stage produced Doubt several years ago and I had seen the production with a former student who is now a priest at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary. Fr. Kevin (studying Drama before entering the priesthood) said every practising Catholic should see Doubt.  

Why? He and I both agreed the play involved searching for the truth, not certainty. 

Additionally, there are scenes where the play might trigger some audience members. There could also be the possibility that audience members leave the show with the understanding that all Catholic clergy are not to be trusted which is simply not true at all.  

Some of the points that followed from the actors intrigued me. Nelles pointed out, and rightly so, the play ends with questions as there are no absolutes at all. For her, this puts the onus on the audience to question and think about what has just played out and perhaps examine what it’s like not to be certain, but to engage with the questions that are raised rather than adhere to the certainty they came in with before the play begins.

For Nelson, the play does not take any sides as it tells a story about something very difficult that has occurred in the Catholic Church.

“Although it will undoubtedly raise confusion and righteous rage, Doubt raises issues that are meant to be examined and reflected upon a deeply personal level. The play puts human behaviour — how we navigate doubt — on the hot seat, not the Catholic Church per se,” she said.

“In our search for certainty, we often turn to people for a quick definite answer. Yes, we should consult various people and listen to different opinions, but I think there’s greater value in sitting with the deep discomfort of uncertainty as we pursue our own answers; especially as there is often no one answer, and whatever answers we believe we’ve found will likely be challenged.”

I do find Nelson’s comment extremely beneficial to understanding the intent of the play. Doubt is not meant as any form of Catholic bashing or assuming the worst for the individual behaviour of a certain few. The Catholic point of view always involves the search for truth. The Church becomes a vehicle in that search for objective truth.

Doubt: A Parable runs Oct. 26  through Nov. 13. Visit 

(Szekeres is publisher and founder of Our Theatre Voice.)

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