There are few occasions when the dark bowels of an old church make for a theater-going experience superior to, well, an actual theater, but this is surely one of them.
The Heights Players’ latest production, “Doubt: A Parable,” takes place in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964. The play, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and was subsequently made into a critically acclaimed film starring Meryl Streep in 2008, revolves around a well-liked, progressive parish priest who is accused of having “improper relations” with one of his students, and the deeply conservative nun and principal who is pointing the finger at him.
It is pure coincidence that the company’s performance space is a basement in an old chapel on Willow Place, but it really sets the scene in a way that no amount of stage dressing could.
The stage is at ground level and the seating is in the round, so the audience is intimately drawn into the fictional world of St. Nicholas Church School — trying not to fidget while Father Flynn (Joel Malazita) delivers spirited sermons, and regressing into quivering children under the stern and ever-vigilant gaze of Sister Aloysious (Elizabeth Rose Bonsey).
Credit here must also go to Bonsey, who embodies the ferocious principal so successfully. I believe every member of the audience (all very much grown adults — this was a Sunday matinee, after all) sat up straight as a Sunday-school student whenever she walked on stage, and spent much of the play studiously avoiding eye-contact with the actor, lest her admonitions be directed towards us.
When one gentleman in the front row decided to answer his cellphone in the middle of the performance (again — it was a matinee crowd), it was almost surprising (and, okay, a little disappointing) that he was not dragged by the ear to the principal’s office on stage right.
“Doubt” is perfect community theater fodder — a small story with a small cast told in a small amount of time (less than 90 minutes, with no intermission). The play, directed here by Noel MacDuffie, famously raises more questions than it answers about what really happened behind those closed rectory doors, but it requires a strong cast and tight pacing to keep the audience constantly second-guessing themselves and the characters. Should we side with the cold but righteous nun, or the charming but sketchy priest? We never do find out.
The actors successfully bring us into this ecclesiastical predicament on the strength of their performances alone — but the 138-year-old church they give them in sure does not hurt.
“Doubt: A Parable” at Heights Players [26 Willow Place between Joralemon and State streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 237–2752, www.heightsplayers.org]. Feb. 7–8 and 14–15 at 8 pm, Feb. 9 and 16 at 2 pm. $20.