LEWISTON – “Doubt” is, without a doubt, one of The Public Theatre’s best shows.

Its audiences are drawn into a spellbinding story where the actions of four fascinating characters shift between portrayals of idealism and honor to utter shame.

Stated simply, the plot is about a nun who is determined to expose a priest she believes is abusing an altar boy. More profoundly, the play takes us into the minds of four people whose deepest beliefs are torn and tested by the allegations.

At the end, the audience gets no clear revelation of who actually did what. That’s for each viewer to decide, and the discussions were beginning as a highly appreciative audience left the theater on opening night last Friday.

For this Maine premiere of “Doubt,” director Christopher Schario brings together a professional cast of four outstanding actors from New York and Los Angeles. Schario draws excellent performances from each of them.

Peter Crosby plays Father Brendan Flynn, a young and popular priest in the early 1960s. His fine work brings a human definition to the priest’s struggle within himself and against formidable charges.

Kathy Lichter portrays Sister Aloysius Beauvier with unrelenting conviction. She is the principal of the small Catholic school, and her strict discipline has been the bedrock of her authority through many years. In her mind, anyone who uses a ballpoint pen is just plain lazy.

Katelin Wilcox is very good in her role as Sister James, a young nun whose buoyant optimism for her eighth-grade students at Saint Nicholas School is clouded as she is caught up in the sour principal’s mistrust.

Tommy Mullen is the school’s first black student – a boy who has academic promise, but doesn’t quite fit with the others. Though he is not seen on stage, his intentionally ambiguous role in the events is central to the plot.

Teri Shepard delivers a thought-provoking look as the boy’s mother who must deal with life’s most difficult challenges with compassion and reality.

This is not a drama about doubt related to religious faith. Although the Catholic Church serves as the setting for the play, it’s really about weighing information in everyday life.

Sister Aloysius’ campaign to bring Father Flynn down begins with her planting suspicions in Sister James’ mind. She urges Sister James to report anything unusual. When one of her students comes into class after a private meeting with Father Flynn, Sister James detects alcohol on the boy’s breath, and the wheels of doubt are set in motion.

Armed with no more evidence than that, Sister Aloysius begins her campaign against the popular priest. She wields her dangerous information within a tight circle. Only Father Flynn, Sister James and Tommy’s mother are directly involved in the allegations, but the power of Sister Aloysius’ threats tests all of them to the limits of their faith in a man they instinctively like.

The intensity of emotions aroused in each character is treated differently. For Sister Aloysius, the importance of her attack on Father Flynn lies in protecting the certainty of her lifelong dedication to discipline.

Sister James faces devastating self-doubt when she finds herself questioning her admiration for the priest.

Father Flynn must decide whether to stand and fight or move on.

Tommy’s mother is an intelligent, well-dressed woman who puts up a powerful defense of her hard-won station in an unfair world. She chooses to let things alone (“It’s only ’til June.”) despite her recognition that her son’s “nature” puts him at great risk in a world of racial, social and economic inequality.

In one of his sermons, which we hear as little lessons of life, Father Flynn talks about the effect of gossip. It’s a parable that brings home the harmful power of unfounded accusations in any part of life.

“Doubt” is the winner of 24 major awards, including the 2005 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its author, John Patrick Shanley, has said he wrote about “the merit of doubt as opposed to certainty.”

Go and Do

WHAT: “Doubt – A Parable”

WHEN: Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 2 and 3. Shows are at 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: The Public Theatre at Lisbon and Maple streets, Lewiston

TICKETS: $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and students; $14 for groups of 10 or more. For tickets, call 782-3200.

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