Consider the silent “b” in the word “doubt.” It is a little speck of dirt left over from the past--a quiet reminder that words have histories. The word shares a root sense with a cartload of words based on the notion of “doubleness.” “Doubt” describes the action of wavering between two alternatives. As the history suggests, this movement between two poles is a dynamic condition, not a static one. Contrarily, words such as “sure” or “certain” rise from roots that suggest stasis—something like “safe from cares” in the first case and “already decided” in the second. In this light, “doubt” might be seen as precondition for action or change, while “surety” suggests a hiding place from which one dare not move.
Shanley’s play Doubt is set in a Roman Catholic church and school in 1964. The plot treats the prospect that an adolescent boy has been abused by a priest. “Been there. Done that,” you say. Perhaps not. Shanley didn’t win the 2005 Pulitzer Prize by rehashing headline news. Here he seems almost disinterested in exposing failings of the Church or in flaying the priest. True to his title, he invites questions not pat answers: How does one make a moral choice in an uncertain situation? How many of the comforts of security can be risked in pursuit of an uncertain good?
Setting the play in 1964 is a canny choice since this was a hinge year in our contemporary history—a year in which the many comforts of the post-war and “Camelot” eras began to give way to the changes and uncertainties we usually associate with “The Sixties.” Civil Rights workers die. Race riots erupt. Viet Nam blows up. The Beatles go on TV. Bob Dylan sings, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” As we recall the difficult but generative uncertainty of that time, we might recall, too, the wisdom of Voltaire: “Doubt is painful. Certainty is ridiculous.”
Doubt at Riverside Theatre runs January 25 - February 17. Tickets are $24 and are available at the Riverside Theatre box office at (319) 338-7672 or online at https://amber.he.net/~riverdog/buyticketsnow.php.