Credit: Claire Demos

John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 play is timely now, in the wake of last month’s long-overdue Vatican summit to address what the current pope called the “scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by men of the church to the detriment of minors.” Set at a Bronx church school in 1964, the story dramatizes a test of wills between a young priest, Father Flynn, and a starchy older nun, Sister Aloysius, who suspects Flynn of having “interfered with” a 12-year-old male pupil. Though Aloysius is the principal at the school where Flynn teaches, as a male priest he outranks her, and she fears the church’s male-dominated power structure might ignore or cover up the case. So she embarks on a campaign to expose Flynn—a crusade that could bring harm to the boy she believes Flynn victimized, who is the school’s first and only black student.

While keeping the audience guessing whether or not Flynn is guilty, Shanley also explores the Roman Catholic Church at a crisis point, when the Second Vatican Council of 1962-’65 was urging the ancient institution to rethink its relationship to the modern world. Aloysius, a traditionalist, thinks that the church must project bedrock certainty—even though she chafes at its restrictions on her authority as a woman. Flynn, a liberal, advocates a “welcoming,” inclusive church—but he also clings to his privileged, protected position as a male in the ultimate old boys’ club.

The Gift Theatre’s intimate alley-style staging vividly expresses the crackling conflict of ideas and emotions between Aloysius (Mary Ann Thebus) and Flynn (Michael Patrick Thornton).   v