Members of the production staff for “Doubt, A Parable,” being performed at Old Academy Players' thru March 20, are, from left, Virginia Kaufmann (of Roxborough), Helga Krauss (of Chestnut Hill), Christopher Wunder (of Manayunk), Sarah Swearer (of Chestnut Hill), Dale Mezzacappa (of Mt. Airy) and Carla Childs (of Mt. Airy).

by Hugh Hunter

I am not a big fan of topical drama. But “Doubt, A Parable” (2004) by John Patrick Shanley won me over. Now running at Old Academy Players, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play uses the scandal of pedophile priests as a way to deal with very significant issues.

It is 1964, and we are in the parish of Saint Nicholas in the Bronx, New York. The new priest, Father Flynn (Ross Druker), tries to introduce the spirit of Vatican II. Love is the thing. Doubt itself can be a powerful force that binds, he tells us.

But don’t feed that line to Sister Aloysius. Barbara Pease Weber is wonderfully credible in a role that could easily veer into stereotype, an old school disciplinarian who only sees slacking off. And when Aloysius looks at Father Flynn, she sees a child molester. Feeling no doubt over the matter, she sets out to get the proof.

But there is surprise along the way. Sister James (Jane Schumacher), the impressionable young schoolteacher, turns out to be the rock everyone comes to lean on. Mrs. Muller (J.J. Johnson), the African-American mother of the allegedly abused boy, has her own surprising fix on the whole business.

Most surprising of all is the showdown between Flynn and Aloysius. When confronted, the “progressive” priest falls back on Right-of-the-Church arguments. But Aloysius demands justice be done and to hell with the church. This reversal of roles is so seamless you scarcely realize it is taking place, and it mirrors contradictions within the church itself.

Director Helga Krauss of Chestnut Hill lets Father Flynn grow indignant. His protests of innocence are feeble. Yet his belief in church hierarchy is fervent. So in this interpretation your attention shifts away from the question of Flynn’s guilt and more upon the consequences of trying to “out” him.

Studies show child abuse is no more prevalent in the church than elsewhere. But other groups do not claim to be “The Body of Christ.” And church cover-ups virtually incorporate into that body the cardinal sin of pride.

Shanley uses the exoticism of this scandal to suggest an even larger meaning. In 1964, traditional institutions everywhere came under attack. What organization can hold up under a close scrutiny as to the yawning gap between professed ideals and what actually gets done? And what are the consequences?

“Doubt” has a fine, cathartic end. The triumph of justice remains problematic. More certain is the weakening of allegiance to an institution. Less able to be unified in their beliefs, many religious people may now live more in worlds of private pain. We sympathize fully, but in the larger collapse of religious orthodoxy, the sorrow we feel for others may dimly be our own. Perhaps doubt is a force that binds, after all.

Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane in East Falls. “Doubt, A Parable” will run through March 20. Reservations at 215-843-1109.