The power of mind and heart
Denver Center offers stellar ‘Gee’s Bend’ and ‘Doubt’

Nikki E. Walker as Sadie Pettway in the Denver Center Theatre Co.’s production of “Gee’s Bend.”/Photo by Terry Shapiro

by Judith Reynolds

Sadie Pettway struggles toward self knowledge and finds her soul in the Civil Rights Movement. Sister Aloysius possesses great certainty and risks her soul on an assumption.

The poles of doubt and certainty hover in the air this spring at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Two stellar productions of new American plays offer theatergoers rich food for thought.

On the surface, “Gee’s Bend,” is a play about one woman’s emancipation. Sadie Pettway lives in an isolated community in Alabama. Named after a pre-Civil War plantation owner, the Gee’s Bend community still exists and has had an incredible history. Descendants of slaves continue to live there, and the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend have achieved national fame. Elyzabeth Wilder’s play grew out of hours of interviews with the people of Gee’s Bend. But it is only tangentially about quilting. The drama is a brilliantly crafted portrait of the South through three generations. Quilting, making something out of the scraps of life, is the operating metaphor for a larger human drama.

Beginning in 1939, when Sadie (the luminous Nikki E. Walker) is 15, the play spans three time periods. The middle section finds Sadie married to Macon (the charming and powerful Eric Ware). Sadie is an eager supporter of voting rights, and her activism leads to an encounter with Martin Luther King Jr., who preached in Gee’s Bend in March 1965. This life-changing event for Sadie is evoked symbolically. One prop, a “whites only” fountain, serves the play in an unexpected way.

One strength of this swiftly moving production is its excellent cast. Sadie, her sister Nella (Daphne Gaines) and her mother, Alice (Stephanie Berry), create specific characters who move through time with differing views of social norms and change. The play ends in 2000 after Alice and Macon have died and almost all of Sadie’s eight children have left Gee’s Bend. Berry reappears as Asia, Sadie’s daughter.

At the beginning and end of “Gee’s Bend,” long panels of stitched fabrics fall from the ceiling. A small river runs around the set symbolizing the real oxbow in the Alabama River where the community thrives. But on stage, there’s real water, deep enough for a baptism to take place in the opening scene.

Most striking of all is the organic use of music – spirituals. Sung by the actors, the songs flow as easily out of the fabric of the play as a needle passes through cloth. Wilder’s play features four actors in five roles, but the work evokes a whole community and an entire era.

In John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt, a Parable,” four characters suggest a school community in specific time in American life – the tumultuous ’60s. They also crack open a highly charged human dilemma.

What’s at issue in Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize, Drama Desk and Tony-Award winning play (2005) is the corrosive effects of certainty when evidence is ambiguous. Set in 1964, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, St. Nicholas Catholic School is in transition as are the nuns, priests, children and their families. One of the most explosive decades in American history sets the backdrop for a play as much about change as it is about doubt.

“Doubt” takes place as Vatican II begins to transform and humanize the church but before the Women’s Movement develops steam or the rolling scandals of pedophilia darken the skies.

Sister Aloysius (the remarkable Jeanne Paulsen) is a tough, skeptical school principal who suspects every student of bad behavior and ulterior motives. Hardened by life and the hierarchy in which she works and worships, Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn (the engaging Sam Gregory) of misbehavior with one of the boy students. She enlists an innocent and enthusiastic teacher, Sister James (the nuanced Nisi Sturgis), to spy on the priest in order to marshal evidence against him. Her vendetta includes inviting the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (the sympathetic Kim Staunton), in for a revelatory office chat.

In 10 scenes, Shanley introduces us to each character, sets forth the problem, the conflicts, the manipulations, the dangers of certainty and the slipperiness of doubt. In the end, ambiguity reigns. People leave the theater either bewildered or arguing one side or the other. It’s a masterful work of literature brought to life in Denver by a superb cast and brilliant direction under Bruce Sevy.

Both Denver productions run without intermission, intensifying the shock of reversals, unexpected discoveries and the wonder of each conclusion.

“Gee’s Bend” has an abstract, minimalist look and contrasts with a realistic set for “Doubt.” St. Nicholas School is evoked by a tightly packed principal’s office framed by the tall brick walls of the schoolyard. Sound effects evoke the passage of time – school bells and student voices. Everything serves the ebb and flow of the text, a play pitting the wages of certainty against the dilemma of doubt.

“Gee’s Bend” runs through April 19. “Doubt” has just opened and runs through May 17. •