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Feb. 8, the Rep

“What do you do when you're not sure?” asks Father Flynn, the controversial protagonist of John Patrick Shanley's “Doubt,” in the play's opening monologue. Shanley's characters wrestle with that question over the course of a tight, tense 90 minutes — and provoke many thoughts about trust, belief and betrayal in the process.

Flynn (Scott Barrow) is a young priest at a 1960s Catholic grammar school whose willingness to befriend his students deviates from the rigid didacticism of the veteran principal, Sister Aloysius (JoAnn Johnson). When a new student — the school's first black pupil — has a private meeting with Father Flynn in the rectory and comes back to class with alcohol on his breath, Aloysius accuses Flynn of pederasty. But Flynn has a perfectly logical explanation for the incident — one that Sister James (Charlotte Purser), a passionate new teacher who feels stifled by Sister Aloysius' temperament, is prepared to believe.

The major battle in this iron triangle is between Flynn and Aloysius, who both have a set philosophy of the world. Only Flynn, the liberal reformer, knows whether he acted improperly, but he refuses to bend to Aloysius' intimidation. Aloysius, for her part, can't believe that the easy-going Flynn is innocent, and she sets out to prove he did the deed. Only Sister James has an inchoate worldview. In her innocence she doesn't want to believe Aloysius' dark accusation, but she could be convinced given the right evidence.

Shanley has chosen a potent venue in which to examine his themes of paranoia and uncertainty. The issue of priest pedophilia will surely resonate with audiences who have read so much of it in the news over the past few years, and that's precisely the point — Flynn's situation is ripe for plausible rumors because similar behavior has been documented in the past.

More, the play is set 1964, as Vatican II was liberalizing the Catholic Church, the civil rights movement was at its height, and the John Birch society was heavily broadcasting its brand of reactionary rhetoric. It was a time of change, and thus a time of doubt. Sister Aloysius, in fact, represents a strand of American that Richard Hofstadter wrote about in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” — an essay published, not coincidentally, in 1964. Like the anti-communists and John Birchers of her time, and the anti-Jesuits and anti-Masons of an earlier one, Aloysius feels besieged by a sea change that threatens to make her obsolete. She fends off her paranoia by believing a story so certain in its facts and its righteousness that it might be too perfect to be true.

In short, the play dances around issues that have a resonance with American history. Shanley has indicated that these may be more fully developed in the film version, which is slated to arrive later this year. On stage, though, the focus is on a less concrete philosophical question: Why do we believe what we believe?

The play relies on strong performances to flesh out this idea, and it certainly gets them from the Rep's cast. Every actor in the four-person ensemble is excellent. Barrow plays Flynn with the versatility the character demands. Under his watch the priest morphs from a goofy basketball coach to a serious sermonizer to an angry man on the defensive, never letting the audience know which identity is his true one. Johnson's Aloysius is stolid and world-weary; naivete drips from every word of Purser's Sister James, and Verda Davenport is solid in her bit part as the mother of the school's new black student.

The show is topped off by superb lighting and set design. The design of a wintertime churchyard is particularly striking for its simplicity of scenery and softness of lighting.

With “Doubt,” the Rep shows how capable it is of producing serious theater. If only it would produce more of it.

“Doubt” runs daily through Feb. 24, with the exception of Monday, Feb. 18. Show times are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20-$35.

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