Shadows of the Doubt
Crime pays in local theatre
By Richard Lord
In a quarter marked not just by a dearth in plays of intellectual challenge but by a shortage of English-language plays overall, two of the biggest draws in Singapore theatre were works by Irish-American playwrights perhaps better known for their Oscar-winning or nominated scripts. Interestingly, the two plays dealt with sensational American criminal cases of eighty years apart.
The first of these was Never The Sinner by John Logan, which takes up the case of Leopold and Loeb, two notorious thrill killers from the 1920's, put up by The Stage Club.
Most of the 20's atmosphere for this production was provided in the foyer before the show by a squad of women dressed as flappers, selling programmes and such. Within the theatre, I had much more the feel of being back in our own young century. The Roaring Twenties element was lacking here.
The 'Roaring Twenties' was very much an invention of the mass media. This mass media included the newly invented phenomenon of radio as well as the phonograph and the cumbersome records played on it. These two helped spread the musical form that gave the period its other nickname - The Jazz Age. Jazz was actually born in New Orleans a quarter of a century before the 20's got started, but it was radio and the phonograph which helped spread this music around the country to white youths who enthusiastically adopted it as the anthem for their rebellion against the world they had inherited.
But an even bigger role in creating and shaping the Roaring Twenties was the print media. The number of newspapers and magazines mushroomed in that decade as a burgeoning readership emerged in the US. To battle the competition and sell more of their product, journalists had to come up with exciting stories. So they made heroes - near-gods really - out of a shy pilot who happened to fly the Atlantic solo, athletes who were a cut or two above the average, flagpole-sitters, flappers, goldfish swallowers…anyone who dared to be slightly outrageous and thus newsworthy.
But criminals, real criminals, were the aristocracy of that last grouping. The newspapers, journals and radio would pick up on some interesting crime and sensationalise it beyond its own power to shock. One of the biggest of these stories was that of Leopold and Loeb, which did not really need a lot of sensationalising.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two brilliant rich kids who had both graduated from top-notch Midwest universities in their teens. (Each was the youngest ever graduate of his university at that point.) They were rich and spoiled by their parents. Neither, apparently, suffered much from low esteem, but they did suffer from a lack of moral judgement.
After reading and grossly misinterpreting Nietzsche, they decided they were both Übermenschen, standing above the herd morality of those around them. To prove this, they went to choose a random victim to kill. They would do it without rancour, revenge or remorse: their only motive was to show themselves they were capable of such a cold-blooded deed.
Their eventual victim, Bobby Franks, was also rich, brilliant and precocious, just a few years younger than his killers. The two used a chisel to kill Bobby. (Loeb supposedly did the actual killing as Leopold drove the car.) They then dumped his body in a concrete drainage culvert and tried to hide their crime by covering his body, particularly the face, with hydrochloric acid.
Not quite as clever as they thought, the two were eventually caught and put on trial for first-degree murder. But even before the arrests, the press had jumped all over the case. (The fact that they were from a superb Chicago, one of the biggest media hubs in America in those days, no doubt helped boost the notoriety.) Chicago's big papers offered rewards for information leading to the arrest of the killers. And the pair seemed to go along readily with their roles as media celebrities. In a word association test administered by a prison psychologist (recreated in this play), Loeb linked the word 'murder' with 'newspaper'.
Because of the crime's notoriety - and also no doubt because they were rich - the pair were represented by America's most famous criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Darrow was known for his brilliant courtroom performances, so this case more or less begged to be given dramatic form. In fact, dozens of books have been written and three films made about the case. John Logan, better known as the screenwriter for Mission Impossible 2, Gladiator, The Aviator and The Last Samurai, wrote a version for the stage in 1983. This play, Never The Sinner, was revised several times, with the current edition having been completed 11 years after the original first made it to the stage.
I think Logan could profitably go back to the text at least one more time. As it now exists, Never The Sinner is still more ideas and flash insights than gripping drama. The main problem (and apparently it has been the main problem since the first Sinner) is the play's structure. The first act bounces back and forth around the circumstances of the social lives of the two conspirators, their own tight relationship (which had a clear homosexual component to it, though it remains a little foggy as to how deep this part of the relationship went), and the murder itself. The second act is mainly the trial. In between, Logan throws out short interludes of the press reporting on the crime and the trial.
(Alright, technically, it was not a trial but a hearing, as the defendants shocked everyone by entering a guilty plea. Thus dispensing with a jury trial, they threw themselves on the mercy of the court, with their lead attorney trying to convince the judge why they should not be hanged for this crime. What we see in Sinner is mainly that hearing. But it is staged like a trial.)
As it now stands, the first act needs a bit more focus and the second act needs more thrust, more fire. God knows that courtroom dramas can be gripping. In fact, one courtroom play that is far more engaging than this - if much lighter intellectually and psychotically - is Inherit The Wind, based on another of Clarence Darrow's famous cases form the Twenties. In that so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, Darrow defended a young Tennessee biology teacher charged with the 'crime' of teaching evolution to his high school classes. Darrow's legal adversary in that case was William Jennings Bryan, a blustery three-time Presidential candidate. Much of the court dialogue in Wind was taken form the actual court proceedings, as happened here. (The title, in fact, comes from Darrow's plea to have his clients spared the noose: "I could see the sin. . I could hate the sin.. but never the sinner.") But in Inherit The Wind, the legal battle was so much more dramatic than in Never The Sinner.
Critical responses to the various productions of this play (it does get produced a lot, in many countries) vary wildly. And it all seems to come down to the strengths of the particular staging. For Sinner to succeed, you apparently need a very inventive and energetic, production. This was not quite the case with the Stage Club's rendering back in late February. The staging, under the direction of Daniel Toyne, was efficient and clean, but for this play you need more. We might almost say that Toyne here was a little too respectful of the text. He needed to add spark and sparkle (especially visual spark), but he was intent on letting the script tell its story on its own terms, at its own pace.
(Actually, Toyne and his crew were not slavishly respectful of the text. We are told here, for instance, that Leopold and Loeb appear in court in tailored suits and Valentino hairstyles. Neither of the actors had what looked like tailored suit or anything like the shellacked Valentino look. This was another example of this show being short on the 20's look. )
The other factor that seems to make for a compelling rendition of Sinner is a blow-away cast. The Stage Club's troupe was more like competent to quite competent. I determined early on that I would overlook the medley of accents amongst the cast. Good thing too: there was not a single Chicago accent within 5,000 miles of this production, but director and cast apparently decided that each actor should go with his or her own accent and let the text give the social and geographical context.
The two central characters were handled in a goodly manner by Paul Hannon and Hansel Tan. Hannon (a tad too old for the role, actually) was good at showing us Loeb the manipulator, the party boy, the neurotic trying to deal with a world he has no respect or affection for. What we did not see in this Loeb was the overwhelming charm the fellow apparently possessed. There was a reason why so many young women sent Loeb proposals of marriage during the trial, and it was not just a fascination with his crime.
Hansel Tan's Nathan Leopold was actually the most interesting performance in the production. Although Tan rushed his lines a bit at the beginning, he then settled into a quite effective pace of delivery. More importantly, he used his face and body language to suggest a young man deeply conflicted, one who suspects that he may have done something terrible but not feeling the guilt strongly enough. Or long enough. Case in point: right after the killing, Tan's Leopold, sitting at the steering wheel, said, "It's just like swatting a fly." But he said it with a look of dread, of near terror on his face and in his body. But then he responds to Loeb's greater sense of ease and adjusts his demeanour to this.
Phil McConnell, with his earthy Northern England accent settled into a lawyer's tone, could have been a little more hangdog, slump-shouldered as Darrow. McConnell also wore a Van Dyke beard, whereas Darrow was clean-shaven. He did, however, shave some of the courtroom dramatics Darrow was celebrated for.
This Darrow was inexpertly low-key and the restraint was one reason why the second act never really caught fire. True, McConnell delivered Darrow's closing summation quite well and the two actors playing his defendants were good at listening during the summations, with the peroration and its currents reflected well on their faces. (At other times, they seemed bored by the proceedings, which actually worked nicely.) This was not simply the high point of the courtroom sessions, it was the only part of the trial itself that really took off.
If Phil McConnell was a little under-whelming as Darrow, Maureen O'Connell was still no match whatsoever for him as the District Attorney. (And why a woman was chosen for this role is not clear; the DA in the actual trial was a windy male, a menacing figure short on polish.) Mrs. McConnell was too stiff in her opening statement. (She even had her right hand in a jacket pocket.) In this case, the DA would have been more abusive. Nor did she ever achieve the forcefulness the role required.
Blair Earl, her Aussie accent aside, caught the tone and temper of a Chicago flapper who likes a good time.
The three actors playing the trio of reporters, Emmanuelle Le Bris, Chris Chua and Steve Armstrong, proved quite serviceable in the roles, but nothing beyond that. Armstrong also doubled up as the main shrink at the trial, and in that capacity, he managed to sound like Tony Curtis' fake millionaire in Some Like It Hot. In a weird way, that helped the scene, and perhaps more such bits of quirkiness might have made this a more engaging production.
But more significantly, except for Tan as Leopold, the actors did not linger in a moment so we could see things like doubt, pain, etc. This was another reason why the drama never really gripped us as much as it should.
Although I have doubts about the play's overall structure, I think Logan's strategy of closing things out was correct. The play ends with the first meeting of the two future killers. At this meeting, there is also a reference to the brief scene that opens the show, wherein Leopold gave a lecture on birds, especially predatory birds like falcons. The lecture and the meeting thereafter were linked to one of the most important moments in the play. This comes when, after the trial, Loeb asks Leopold what would have happened if they had not murdered Bobby Franks. The latter's reply: "We would have been comfortable - and unexceptional." For these two men, twisted children of promise, that would have been totally unacceptable, like a falcon forced into a cage and a permanent diet of grainy bird feed.
At the end of the performance, I felt that the evening had been worthwhile, but in no way inspiring. But is there, in fact, something inspiring in Logan's text? I still do not know. Some special moments, bits of dialogue (such as the above) lifted me up for a very short time, but these were never sustained. I still have to give the piece, and this show, a suspended sentence.
(Post-note: Darrow's strategy and his brilliant closing argument won the day: The judge ruled that the two suffered from mental illness but not insanity and they were spared the death penalty. Each received a sentence of life imprisonment plus 99 years. The first was for the murder, the second for the kidnapping of their victim. In 1936, Loeb was slashed 56 times by a fellow prisoner in the shower room and died in the prison hospital a short time later. Leopold was paroled in 1958 after four appeals for release, moved to Puerto Rico, married and worked amongst the poor. He died in 1971.)
Roman Catholicism is a religion which, over many centuries, has sought to dispel doubt, to construct soaring cathedrals of the mind to which the faithful could flee from the scourges of doubt. It seemed as if certainty on matters moral and theological was the gift every Catholic received with baptism, along with salvation. The Church, after all, had answers for almost everything. As our godparents rejected Satan and all his wiles in our name - doubt seemed to be one of the devil's more insidious wiles.
Seemed…And yet, Catholicism has always kept its own special vault for the preservation of necessary doubt. In the construction of certainty, Holy Mother Church saw that there were places where doubt could be allowed to breathe and flourish. As a Protestant friend once complained to me, "Damn! You Catholics have an escape valve for everything."
John Patrick Shanley, a first-generation Irish-American Catholic, takes this seeming paradox and weaves it into his most successful (commercially successful) theatre effort to date - appropriately entitled Doubt.
First produced just last year, Doubt is set in 1964, in a Catholic school in the Bronx borough of New York City. The agon at its core is what has become a major embarrassment for the Church over the last five to ten years: the charges, some of them decades old, of sexual abuse of young Catholics by their own clergy. While some of the charges have proven most false, over a thousand in the US alone seem to be true. (Many of the child-abusers were repeat offenders, priests unconscionably transferred from one parish to another by bishops who were more interested in protecting the Church's reputation than protecting the young people in its care.)
Doubt was the third play that NY season about pedophilia amongst the Catholic clergy. It has been a monumental success, with sell-out houses first off then on Broadway. It snared both Tony and Pulitzer Prizes as Best Play, with all three main characters also taking Tony nominations and Cherry Jones winning Best Actress for her rendition of the school principal.
Doubt starts promisingly enough: Father Brendan, basketball coach and Phys Ed teacher at St Nicholas parochial school, delivers a wake-up-and-listen sermon on community, isolation and guilt at Sunday mass. The next day, the principal of St Nicholas, Sister Aloysius, is greatly interested in possible personal motivations behind Father Brendan's powerful sermon as well as his activities at the school. After a short interrogation of one of the new teachers at the school, Aloysius gruffly decides that the priest may be involved in some unspeakable activities with at least one of the boys at the school. And this boy, Donald Robert, also happens to be the only black student at the school. She makes it her personal mission to see that Father Brendan gets pushed out of 'her' St. Nicholas. (Ah yes, St. Nicholas; the patron saint of children, no less.)
This could indeed have been just the start of a powerful play, but Shanley chooses to make the opposing forces so lopsided and hard to swallow. His Sister Aloysius is terribly overdrawn. At times in her opening screed, she comes close to sounding like the titular character in Christopher Durang's appalling adolescent satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. But Doubt is not a satire. It is intended as an exploration of themes deep and dark, but Shanley loads things too severely there at the beginning to make the exploration interesting.
The play becomes fully credible and emotionally engaging only late in its development when the mother of Donald Robert appears at Sister Al's behest. Not only is Mrs. Robert a finely calibrated character, but here the sad, slightly twisted humanity of Sister Aloysius comes to the fore as well. The follow-on scene, where Father Brendan comes into the office and the senior nun confronts him with her charges is fairly strong and altogether credible.
Unfortunately, it is not as strong as it should have been, as Shanley has already poisoned his own well in the opening scenes. In spilling the dioxin of extreme orthodoxy into Sister A's character, he asks us to twist around that image and makes allowances that our hearts do not want to make.
A strong production may have been able to overcome the many flaws in the first two-thirds of Doubt. This is apparently what happened in the original New York productions, which helped the show win its full house of Tony nominations with wins in three big categories. Unfortunately, this was not at all the case in the Action Theatre production here in Singapore.
Doubt's central problem, Sister Aloysius, was handed to veteran actress Nora Samosir. Clearly the best strategy for someone given this assignment is to play against the text in those early scenes, to bring a few flashes of warmth and humanity to the character. Sadly, Samosir played the nun as avenging angel to the hilt, her tone and presentation as severe as her facial expression and spectacles. The result was an unyielding harridan who inspired fear and contempt, with no room for pity.
As Sister Al's adversary, Lim Yu Beng was more successful in the guise of Father Brendan. Lim was able to exude a certain measure of that practised charm that most successful parish priests have. He also proved adept at using this charm as a foil against his nemesis. For instance, when he asks for sugar for his tea, Sister Aloysius has to rummage through her desk, explaining that she put it away as her Lenten sacrifice some eight or nine months earlier. With a nicely lilting delivery, Lim's Father Brendan points out that it could not have been much of a sacrifice then, as she has been able to continue without that pleasure for so long.
This moment is, in fact, key in this scene where the principal and the priest first confront each other. It implies that the nun is infused with pious bitterness while the priest is filled with processed sweetness. (He asks for three cubes in his small teacup.) And Father Brendan's retort about the sacrifice involved suggests that Sister Aloysius may have more of the Pharisee in her than she would ever want to admit. To her credit, Nora Samosir reacted appropriately to this comment, though she could have posted an even more defensive look on her face at this slight.
Where Lim's Father Brendan falls slack is in suggesting the possibly darker elements in this man; at least in the early going. Case in point: the play opens with that sermon by Father Brendan on the two essential poles of Catholicism, community and the individual, interior life. The sermon is a great opportunity for an actor to briefly reveal, and then cover up again, aspects of this man.
Lim's delivery here was highly competent but far from inspiring. For instance, he alludes early on to the assassination of John Kennedy, which had taken place just a year earlier and forged sudden bonds of community amongst many. Now, the Kennedy assassination was apparently a truly devastating experience for working-class Catholics, especially Irish Catholics. But in touching on this event, Lim spoke more in the tone of someone from 2006 looking back upon an unfortunate historical event. The shared pain, the deep sense of loss was missing from this part of the sermon.
More significantly, at the heart of the sermon, Brendan touches on three personal afflictions that separate one from the community Catholicism promotes. The third is: "No one knows I have done something wrong." In delivering this line, Lim gave it equal weight with the other two. It made this affliction sound like something the priest pulled in at random from any number of problems confronting the soul. But there he missed the chance to tell us in his delivery that Father Brendan himself may be suffering from a hidden wrong he has committed and managed to keep hidden.
This is no small matter. In the next scene where we see Sister Aloysius interrogating one of her new teachers, Sister James, she refers to this sermon and points the finger specifically at this line. Had Yu Beng put more weight on it, we could all share a little bit of Sister Al's suspicion at a deeper meaning here, a hint of public confession by the good Father.
Pam Oei's performance was also more mixed than magic. Again, as with Samosir, the problem was that she moved along with the surface of the script. Her Sister James is a lamb in sheep's clothing, exuding charm and innocence more than depth. Too often, we saw Oei falling back on what she does well, as evidenced most recently in Dim Sum Dollies and Oi! Sleeping Beauty: calling on her cute child-like innocence and vulnerability. Too rarely did we see a sense of guilt about how she might have betrayed Father Brendan into the hands of his adversary or the searing doubt about the whole issue.
Oei's last scene was also her strongest. Having taken a leave of absence to visit a sick brother, she returns to a very different St. Nicholas School. Father Brendan has resigned and moved on to another parish and the boy he is accused of having molested is lost without his priest-mentor. Only here did we get the sense that Sister James is given a deeper insight: that while the priest may have been guilty of being too physical with young Donald, he may have been helping the boy deal with his own sexuality. It is a terrible truth for a nun in the mid-1960s to swallow, but that is just what Oei showed us there.
As has been noted elsewhere, the one fully satisfying performance in Action's Doubt belonged to Sukania Venugopal as the mother of the boy Father Brendan may have molested. Not coincidentally, the one scene Venugopal appears in also happened to be the strongest scene, period, in this production. In fact, it was a turnaround scene for this show. As Venugopal crafted the emotional ups and downs of her character expertly, defending her right not to know what was happening between her son and the priest he so admires, Nora Samosir's Sister Aloysius also became a more human, more textured character.
It was not just the actors, however. Shanley crafted the entire scene well, presenting real human beings with real problems. There was a strong element of irony in an Irish-American nun trying to lecture an African-American mother about the tough situation blacks face in white American society. Mrs Roberts comes back, not in anger but in a curious mix of resoluteness and resignation to explain the realities of being a black minority to this obviously well-intentioned nun. And here, for almost the first time, we see that Sister Aloysius is well-intentioned, that she deeply sympathises with the plight of this sole black kid in an otherwise lily-white school. (If the script had given us such good but flawed human beings from the start, it would have been a little more deserving of the lauds it has received.)
With near-heroic dignity, Venugopal's Mrs Roberts shows that her only agenda is to protect her young son, who may very well be gay in a homophobic society as well as black in a racist society. The intellectual and emotional parries and thrusts of this concerned nun and this committed mother were quite strong and both actresses acquitted themselves well here.
The other bit of unalloyed praise for this Doubt goes to Thoranisorn Pitikul's set (especially its mobility, which allowed major scene changes to take place very quickly and cleanly) and Suven Chan's lighting to bring the best look to this set. Pitikul's images ranged from the realistic (Sister Al's office) to the representational (the church where Father Brendan delivers his two key sermons) and did an impressive job with them all. Plus, as I have no doubt that Doubt is a difficult show to stage-manage, strong praise should go to Evelyn Chia for the fact that we never for a moment noticed the stage management. (SM is something we usually notice only when something goes amiss.)
Finally, as I have frequently given praise to Samantha Scott-Blackhall for her direction, it is only fair that I give her a very mixed notice on this one. The basic staging was fine, as the director worked out the stage traffic and images quite competently, but she must bear a certain responsibility for the tone of the characterisations. Also - and very untypically for Scott-Blackhall's work - there was a certain sloppiness of detail here.
To cite just one sloppy element, not one of the three central characters blessed him/herself properly. Father Brendan's dangled aimlessly at the foot of the cross, while the two nuns made the sign of the cross in such a perfunctory manner, it reminded me of the way we used to do it while saying grace before meals or when rushing into the chapel late for prayers. In other words, just the way the nuns used to scold us for making the sign of the cross. Here, it did not fit the two religious, as Father Brendan's was also unfitting to a priest just concluding a most stirring sermon.
(Post-note here: Action Theatre came up with this gimmick of having the audience vote per SMS as to the guilt or innocence of Father Brendan. I have been told that the audiences voted overwhelmingly for his innocence. This, I am sure, is due mainly to the highly unsympathetic portrayal of Sister Aloysius Nora Samosir gave us in the early going and the overly sympathetic portrayal of the priest Lim Yu Beng turned in. There was more dark in Father Brendan and more light in Sister Aloysius than we were allowed to see.)