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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
I wish I could say that the cast, though competent, was able to show all the subtle shades and nuances that their roles provide. Cato, who ably directed both I Am My Own Wife and Souvenir at this theater last season, has also made a palpable error in the final scene: one that compromises a key component, but more about that later.
Although the play is set in a Bronx Irish-Italian Catholic school in 1964, it invokes a contemporary and topical issue. The quandary at the heart of the play is whether Sister Aloysius (Ann Dowd), a firm believer in the inflexible directives and moral certainties that guide her in her faith and in her calling as a teacher, can get the goods on a well-liked young priest Father Flynn (Dylan Chalfy), whom she suspects of having an unnatural affection for the school's sole black youth.
In order to validate her suspicions, she persuades the disbelieving Sister James (Meghan Andrews) to keep an eye on Father Flynn. The question remains whether the kindly and gentle Sister James, whose generosity of spirit and love of teaching appears to be in constant conflict with the sterner absolutes that govern her superior, is able to ally herself with Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius is unswerving in her resolute determination to out and oust the popular Father Flynn. The wonder of Shanley's script is that it leaves room for the play's three actors to baffle us even as they convince us of their integrity at different times.
Dowd commendably maintains the stiff-necked severity and autocratic nature of Sister Aloysius, but seems rigidly opposed to revealing anything more. Never is Sister Aloysius's wry and starchy sense of humor given much opportunity to glimmer through Dowd's rigid, single-minded portrayal. It is certainly a choice, but her one-dimensional severity, except for an unconvincing reversal at the end of the play, lacks the nuance that might make us look deeper into her motives. (Cherry Jones portrayed Sister Aloysius on Broadway).
The play is best served by the convincing performance of Chalfy who plays Father Flynn, a fighter who not only steadfastly denies her charges, but who also courageously, if also defensively, embeds philosophical moral tales in his Sunday sermons in the face of Sister Aloysius' relentless pursuit. One of the play's more arresting elements is how important it is for Sister Aloysius to use all the cunning she can muster when she confronts Flynn knowing she is in a world controlled by men.
Andrews adds a quirkily unnerving layer, as well as a vocally grating quality as Sister James, who is severely conflicted by her superior's unshakable position and the lack of substantiating evidence. One of the play's most compelling scenes involves a visit to Sister Aloysius by the boy's mother Mrs. Muller (nicely acted by Rosalyn Coleman) in which she achingly reveals some family truths that unwittingly serve to empower Sister Aloysius. The play, given a handsome revolving setting by Hugh Landwehr that takes us from the Catholic school's garden courtyard to the head teacher's office, remains purposely ambiguous and enigmatic when it comes to the priest's innocence or guilt. With or without the perfect cast, Shanley's play grips us with its provocative theme: the pitfalls of self-righteousness and the arrogance of being "the decider" in the light of doubt.
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