Aug 09, 2020

Student actors take on ‘Doubt: A Parable’

'The heart of the story is just about faith and the kind of duality of our nature,' said actress Hayley Galbraith, who plays Sister Aloysis, pictured above with Father Flynn (Miles Gaston Villanueva).
Photo courtesy University Theatre

A Broadway play that has garnered a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award will have its Fresno debut on campus tonight, making Fresno State one of the few colleges to bring the script to life.

John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable” is the second production this season for University Theatre.

“We’re excited to be the first company to present it to the Valley,” said Director Kathleen McKinley, a professor and director of special projects in the theatre arts department. “It’s the best play I’ve seen or read in 10 years. The play is really a conflict of ideas.”

Shanley uses the familiar circumstances of the Roman Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals as a basis for the play. However, McKinley said the play explores other key issues such as “moral certainty, faith [and] roles of men and women in society and in the Catholic Church.”

Taking place at St. Nicholas Catholic School in the Bronx in 1964 — the year after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated — a priest is accused of pursuing a questionable relationship with a young boy, who happens to be the first black student the school has accepted.

Hayley Galbraith plays the part of the principal, Sister Aloysius, who approaches Father Flynn, played by Miles Villanueva, about her suspicions regarding the close relationship.

Caught between the two conflicting sides is Sister James, played by Rhiannon Fernandez, who is a young nun and an inexperienced teacher at the school.

Bryttani McGhee plays the part of the young boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller, who offers Aloysius her own views concerning her son’s relationship with Flynn.

“I think that [the play is] really applicable to times right now, not just because of the topical implications,” Galbraith said. “You’re always hearing stories about these Catholic priests, [but] the heart of the story is just about faith and kind of the duality of our nature.”

Galbraith’s character is a highly disciplined nun who is misconstrued as being closed-minded when in actuality she is merely stubborn.

But her true intentions are to look out for the students at St. Nicholas and to provide them with, as Galbraith said, “the opportunity to start their life with a real religious foundation [and] with a strong moral compass.”

Because of her instincts to protect the children, Aloysius confronts Flynn and asks for his resignation.

Defending himself against the seemingly cold Aloysius is Villanueva’s character, Flynn—a “personal, charismatic, and complex” man, Villanueva said.

“He loves his children. They all look up to him,” Villanueva said. “He holds them very dear to his heart. He has things he doesn’t want people to know about, things he wants to leave in his past. He’s very progressive, wanting to look to the future.”

Flynn is also an advocate for the teachings of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, supporting the idea that priests need to be closer to the people, like a friend and like a father, Villanueva said.

McKinley said that though each character is vastly different, that’s what allows Shanley to be a neutral voice to the audience.

“[The play] simply says people feel differently about different things,” McKinley said. “[Shanley] really leaves it up to the audience to question their own certainties.”

Though the storyline surrounds the idea of a forbidden relationship within a church, the real issues emphasize the idea that people should sometimes question their own certainties, instead of sitting idly by, McKinley said.

“Doubt is often seen as a weakness,” McKinley said. “This play presents the idea that having doubt actually takes great courage. If you take all the things that you believe in, in your life and you say ‘Maybe I’m wrong.’ That’s scary.”

Fernandez agrees.

“St. Nicholas was the patron saint of the students and children and the falsely accused, which is the whole deal of the play — Father Flynn, is he guilty or is he not?”

If you’re really into it and listening to the words [the characters] are saying, I feel like there isn’t a soul who will go home not in conversation about something they’re in doubt about or who they are, how they deal with things or how they would approach somebody in that situation,” Fernandez said.

Despite the somber tone of the underlying storyline, the play does introduce some comedic relief — often times with the mood changing from extreme seriousness to humorous.

“They’re not cardboard characters,” McKinley said. “They have their little foibles, the funny things they do. These characters are very well-rounded human beings, [and] human beings are pretty funny.”

And just when audience members may feel that they have figured out each character and scenario, Shanley manages to undo it all.

“Just when you have an opinion of who is right and wrong, and who is guilty and who is innocent, Shanley throws another curveball at you,” Villanueva said. “[The play] is so bare, yet so full and tells so much about the characters.”

Because the play encompasses a variety of concepts — from doubt to love to morals — through modern day issues, “Doubt” has something to offer for all audience members.

“It’s one of the best plays that have come out in the past century [and] we’re getting our hands on it before everybody else,” Galbraith said. “It’s funny, it makes you think, it’s sincere [and] it’s tense. It’s just a great 82 minutes of theatre.”

Watch the University Theatre production

The premiere is tonight at 8 p.m. in the recently renamed Dennis and Cheryl Woods Theatre, formerly the Arena Theatre. The production will also run on Nov. 3 and Nov. 6 through Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. There will also be a matinee showing at 2 p.m. on Nov. 4.

•Tickets can be purchased at the University Theatre Box Office between the hours of noon to 5 p.m., or online. The costs are: $15 for general admission; $13 for Fresno State faculty and staff, senior citizens, and non-Fresno State students; $8 Fresno State students.

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