BLOOMSBURG - The title "Doubt" says it all.
The characters and the audience struggle with lingering doubt in John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt: A Parable."
As Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble's 34th season opener, the 2005 Pulitzer and Tony Award-winner is playing at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. today and next Sunday at the Alvina Krause Theatre.
Set in 1964 Bronx, "Doubt" could easily be subtitled "Didn't he ... or did he?" as the nun principal confronts the new parish priest about her suspicions that he is carrying on an inappropriate relationship with the school's sole black student.
One of the play's many strengths is its structure and the playwright's concise dialogue, which lets the audience decide whether the principal is wise or overly zealous in her efforts to expose the charismatic priest.
Directed by BTE's James Goode, "Doubt" has a four-member cast that carves out crisp portrayals.
Heading the cast are Elizabeth Dowd as Sister Aloysius, the stern principal of St. Nicholas School, and Daniel Roth playing Father Flynn, the personable parish priest and the school's gym teacher.
Both give sterling performances culminating with a heated argument in which Sister Aloysius makes her accusations and Father Flynn denies any sexual misconduct.
Dowd, in her nun's habit with tight-fitting bonnet, relies upon her experience and personal determination to form the conclusion that the priest is a pedophile, steadfastly refusing to bend her belief even as she admits that she has no proof. For the nun, it's a question of truthfulness, faith and the need for her to do what is called for, regardless of the consequences.
Roth portrays the liberal parish priest who loves teaching, and with a superior attitude needles the principal. (In one scene, he asks for three lumps of sugar in his coffee, much to the dismay of the conservative nun). With facial expressions and body language, Roth makes Father Flynn not necessarily a sympathetic figure.
Likely the most pivotal character is the idealistic Sister James, played by Cassandra Pisieczko, the sometimes confidant of Sister Aloysius.
Having been bullied by the principal, Sister James can still see both sides of the issue, but sides ultimately with Father Flynn, simply because she has doubt about any impropriety.
Completing the cast is guest artist Lydia St. Claire, who plays Mrs. Muller, the mother of the eighth-grade student who is called to the principal's office for clarification of what she knows and believes.
The black student's mother, staunchly protecting her son, is hesitant to make any judgment, not wanting to face the consequences if the truth - whatever it is - comes out.
With the principal's office as the setting, the final battle begins as the priest's anger explodes when the nun acknowledges her blind intent to destroy the priest and his reputation, even if it means destroying her own reputation.
Although there are plenty of laughs, generated mainly in the early scenes between the priest and principal, "Doubt" is a taut drama.
BTE benefits from the complex questions raised during the 90-minute run played with no intermission, and the riveting performances by Roth and Dowd.
It is the ambiguity in the unsettling storyline that makes "Doubt" must-see dramatic entertainment. In keeping with the somber theme, the cast takes their curtain call "in character," with nary a smile or acknowledgment of the well-deserved hearty applause.
Tickets may be bought at the box office, by calling 784-8181 or online at www.bte.org.