‘Doubt', staged by The Madras Players', dealt with issues of truth, faith and morality, without being didactic

Replete with moral dilemmas, a play like this would be draining under any circumstances. And these were exceptional.

‘Doubt,' staged at the Sivagami Pethachi auditorium over the weekend, was set in motion by Mithran Devanesen. Fascinated by the story, he asked writer Anushka Ravishankar to help him adapt the Broadway play to the Indian context. Created by John Patrick Shanley, the Pulitzer-winning 2004 production was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep.

When Mithran passed away a few months ago, he had already picked the cast and started work on the play. Determined to see it through, The Madras Players approached Michael Muthu of Boardwalkers and asked him to take over as director, which he did.

To everyone's credit, the power-packed production flows seamlessly despite the emotional turbulence its cast and crew have been through. As the play concluded, as the audience rose for a heartfelt standing ovation, everyone on stage looked exhausted, but satisfied.

Elaborate sets

‘Doubt' is built on The Madras Players' strengths. There are elaborate sets, executed by Muthu, blending his style with accents of Devanesen: ponderous rooms, in the style of traditional Catholic churches, with triangular windows, cold grey stone and an abundance of Christian symbols, from crucifixes to candles. Complete with thoughtful touches, like the sound of children playing outside when Sister Aloysius wrestles open her office window.

Add elaborate costumes, designed by Nanda Devanesen, for the full picture. The two nuns sweep about comfortably in their habits, complete with weighty rosaries, and Father Sebastian is resplendent in his robes.

Set in a school for the upper-crust, the kind of old British Catholic institutions Indians are familiar with, ‘Doubt' deals with issues of truth, faith and morality, without ever actually spelling out anything.

Crusty Sister Aloysius (Indrani Krishnaier), a tough disciplinarian, with iron clad beliefs, disapproves of Father Sebastian's warm relationship with the school boys he tutors. She suspects he's been ‘improper' with a new student, Charles Anandraj, an underprivileged child who's joined as part of an outreach programme. Young sympathetic sister James (Shaan Katari Libby), determined to be loyal to Aloysius (who she sees as a mentor), can't help but see both sides of any story, so she's torn between the two.

The play's not supposed to have answers. Being moralistic would have been too easy and predictable — especially given the circumstances. This is, after all, a time when the Catholic Church is beset with all kinds of internal struggles.

Krishnaier's Aloysius is endearing. Perhaps too endearing. Although she works hard on being cold and superior, judging by her perpetually tense shoulders, this is evidently just an armour. This makes her ultimate breakdown less surprising than it should be. Ironically, despite being the catalyst that drives the play into its darkest moments, she's also responsible for a lot of the chuckles.

Nikhila Kesavan's low key role as Anandraj's mother is yet another reason why this is grown-up theatre. Instead of using a forced ‘working class' accent for easy laughs, she just changes intonation and stresses to demonstrate the differences between her and Aloysius.

Surprise element

The surprise element was the charming Shaan Katari Libby, who easily kept pace with Ramakrishna and Krishnaier. Playing nervousness is not as easy as being nervous, and she created a memorable Sister James — sweet, transparent and perpetually tense — even if she did border on histrionics very occasionally.

Ramakrishna, as always, used his resounding voice and presence to best effect, bringing back memories of his role as the Fantastic Frank Hardy, a Faith Healer in Broan Friel's play of the same name. (A production incidentally directed by Devanesen). He skilfully alternated between charming and cunning. Perhaps it would have accentuated the play's fascinating shades of grey if he wasn't so thoroughly brow-beaten in his final confrontation with Sister Aloysius, leaving the audience with an impression of his guilt.

All in all, an immensely-satisfying production, and one that throws up more questions than answers. After all, the genius of ‘Doubt' is that it's an incessant, strenuous moral guessing game.