‘Doubt’ makes persuasive theater opener

Amanda Lackman

Bobbi Hawk, left, Caitlin Hart and Dan Nickerson star in “Doubt: A Parable.”

Nothing evokes the hazards of theatrical entrepreneurship like introducing the company’s first season with a play called “Doubt.”

But the Yellowstone Repertory Theatre’s maiden production quickly removed all doubt about the quality of its work, if not the sustainability of its venture. “Doubt: A Parable” was performed superbly and suggests high promise for the season to follow.

Yellowstone Repertory Theatre is a project of three theater veterans: Craig Huisenga, artistic director; Dina Brophy, managing director; and Caitlin Hart, founder and a member of the artistic ensemble. The project has nonprofit status and a five-member board of directors.

“Doubt,” directed by Huisenga, is the first production in a three-play season. Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” plays March 2-17, and “Crimes of the Heart” ends the season from June 8-23.

That’s quite an opening lineup. “Doubt” and “Crimes of the Heart” are both Pulitzer Prize winners, and “The Glass Menagerie” is one of the great warhorses of American theater. A less talented ensemble might find the season ambitious to a fault, but Yellowstone Repertory is nothing if not ambitious.

“We intend to create an ensemble of actors, directors, and designers capable of mounting excellent productions of our best plays — classics, important contemporary works, women playwrights, and small-cast musicals,” Huisenga said in a news release. “Those are the kinds of plays we are most attracted to, and Billings doesn’t get many chances to see shows like that.”

That’s big talk, but Yellowstone Repertory’s opening production delivered in a big way. The play by John Patrick Shanley ran for more than a year on Broadway, and Shanley also wrote the script for the movie version, which starred Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The movie was only a middling success, perhaps because the play’s tight intensity is hyper charged by the stage’s small, sparsely adorned space. This is not a play that needs room to breathe; it practically grabs the audience by the throat.

The movie remains unseen by this reviewer, but it’s hard to see how even that formidable cast could have handled the roles much better than the Repertory Theatre’s small cast. Dan Nickerson, who has been racking up local theater credits since moving here in 2011, plays Father Flynn, a priest at a Catholic school who is suspected of improper conduct with the school’s only black student.

The year is 1964, when a priest’s word carries more weight than it has since the sex scandals in the Catholic priesthood that were highlighted in “Spotlight,” which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture. Nickerson gets it just right: He comes across as sensitive, caring and just smarmy enough that he might really be guilty of doing something wrong.

Equally praiseworthy are the performances of Bobbi Hawk as Sister Aloysius and Hart as Sister James. Hawk has appeared in many Billings productions, most recently in “Becky’s New Car” at Billings Studio Theatre. Hart went on the Montana Repertory Theatre’s national tours of “Doubt” and “The Miracle Worker,” and in Billings she has played roles ranging from Mary Poppins to Honey in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

As Sister Aloysius, Hawk is suspicious and uncompromising to the point of cruelty.

“Innocence is a form of laziness,” she advises Sister Jane, a well-meaning young teacher who is struggling to adapt to the school’s strict discipline. Sister Jane moves from willing pupil to doubting colleague to, at one point, incoherent screamer as she tries to carve out lives for her students.

“They’re all uniformly fearful of you,” she confides to Sister Aloysius.

“Yes,” the sister replies, unfazed. “That’s how it works.”

Even Wanda Morales, who plays the black student’s mother, lights up the stage, although she doesn’t appear until an hour into the 90-minute show and departs just a few minutes later. She elevates the play’s moral urgency.

“Where is your compassion?” Father Flynn demands of Sister Aloysius.

“Nowhere you can get at it,” the sister replies.

A great deal of plot is unscrambled in the play’s final minutes, but nothing makes the title any less apt. The characters in “Doubt” are tightly sealed packages of uncertainty, questioning each other and themselves. Whether one reads the play as a commentary on changes that wrenched the Catholic Church in the 1960s or, perhaps, as a precursor to post-truth America, the message is powerful and persuasive.

It is a brilliant piece of work, and the Yellowstone Repertory Theater performs it brilliantly.

“Doubt” is performed at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 18 at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts, with a Sunday performance at 2 p.m. Nov. 12. Prices range from $15 to $22. For information, go to www.YellowstoneRep.org or call 944-4313.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the “Where is your compassion?” quote.

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