The difficulty in this is that all of the performances were so good in so many different ways. There wasn’t a single bad performance in any of the three theaters, so trying to pick out the best is a little like choosing between Death by Chocolate ice cream or a caramel chocolate brownie a la mode—it’s impossible to lose with any choice.
That said, here is the cast I would put together:
Father Flynn: Jon Bennett from Performance Network
Sister Aloysius: Nancy Elizabeth Kammer from BoarsHead
Sister James: Amy Fitts from BoarsHead
Mrs. Muller: Tammie Harris from Performance Network
Now, it would be a cop-out to just leave it at that, so I'll try to explain why for each one.
Each of the Father Flynns were very different and very strong.
BoarsHead’s Michael Joseph Mitchell (see picture at right) was one of the most likeable of the priests. At the same time, there was something about his priest that was squirrelly. He was passionate, but not quite trustworthy. Often his compassion came across as weakness, perhaps because Nancy Elizabeth Kammer’s Sister Aloysius made such a convincing case that the children could be protected only by someone who kept their distance from them.
Detroit Repertory Theatre’s Ray Schultz created a Father Flynn who was the most ambiguous of the three. It was his priest that I found to be the biggest cipher. His is also the priest that I found to the least memorable of the three. After the performance, which was admittedly on the Sunday of a holiday weekend, I remember thinking that the whole show had a general lack of energy and wondered whether I caught the performance on an off-day.Despite the two solid performances by Mitchell and Schultz, Performance Network’s Jon Bennett (see photo, right) came across as the strongest of the three—despite one moment which I thought was overplayed and caused me to break out of the story. However, that was but a single moment and throughout the rest of the play is performance was so strong, that I was mesmerized. He created a deeply layered priest who was easily sympathetic, yet had a sly side to him. It was this congeniality that made it so shocking in his confrontations with Sister Aloysius when his authoritarianism struck like lightning, physically affecting both the sisters and the audience. It was a tightly controlled performance where every glance and move was pregnant with meaning.
I’ll confess, as I started to write the reasons behind my pick, I changed my choice. My first choice was Barbara Busby from Detroit Repertory, but the more I thought about it and the more I started to explain why, the more I realized that if I were really putting together a cast, it is BoarsHead’s Nancy Elizabeth Kammer that I would pick.
Barbara Busby put in a stellar performance as Sister Aloysius. She was cranky, she was stern, and she was deeply committed to her school and her students. In the performance I saw, there was a moment when I thought she was going to come out into the audience and wrap someone’s knuckles with a ruler when their cell phone went off for the second time.
As strong as her sister was, as I began to write, I realized that Kammer’s Sister Aloysius (see picture above) did several things that swung me in her favor. For starters, even though much of what she said ran strongly counter to my ideas about education and the attitude adults should have toward children, she was absolutely convincing that she believed she was doing what was best. While her actions were cold, she believed the explanations she was giving and truly believed that what she was doing was in the child’s best interest. There was nothing mean about even the cruelest actions. Rather, she was a woman of great moral fortitude and courage. Her actions sprang from the conviction that one is required to do that which is right, not that which is easy. Hers was not a personal vindictiveness, but rather an iron-clad faith that she must do her duty, no matter how painful. Also, I realized that since my choice for Sister James was clearly Amy Fitts, that I did not want to break up that duo. Their energy and chemistry was so perfect that they both made each other better. They were perfect mirrors and foils for one another.
Jan Radcliff of Performance Network also made a fascinating Sister Aloysius and her portrayal had some of the greatest vulnerability and humanity to it. It was easier to see her struggle throughout the whole play. There were times when she seemed uncertain not just about what to do, but about whether it was right to do what she was doing. She did seem somewhat young for the part, but that may have partly been because the other two I’d seen had been played much older. In some ways, Radcliff’s Sister Aloysius was almost too vulnerable, a fact which made me much earlier swing in favor of the priest.
This was perhaps the easiest choice for me. BoarsHead’s Amy Fitts became the gold standard by which I compared all of the other Sister James. This may seem somewhat unfair given that she was also the first Sister James that I saw (she also read the part for the staged reading that I’d seen the year before), but she brought a light and energy to the role that really did put her performance on a level above anything else I saw. Her Sister James had such amazing energy and a bubbly spirit that constantly warred with its natural state and her desire to please Sister Aloysius.
Electrifying” was the adjective used to describe the performance of BoarsHead’s Tiffany Mitchenor and there were audible gasps during the Detroit Repertory production when Janee Ann Smith had her confrontation with Sister Aloysius. However, it was Performance Network’s Tammie Harris that had the most profound affect on me. Hers was an understated strength, coming out of a deeply buried and controlled anger. I believed in her pain. There was a reserve about her that made her less bitter and extremely emotionally effective. It was Harris’ performance that brought me to tears even though by this time I knew exactly what she was going to say.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about which show is our favorite. On Thursday we'll discuss whether we thought the priest was guilty in each show and why, then on Friday we'll have a bit of a free-for-all with each other and anyone who wants to join in.
P.S. My apologies to those of you using Internet Explorer (which according to Google Analytics is the majority of you). Some strange coding got into the file that I wasn't able to see in Firefox. Thankfully, a reader alerted me to it and I beleive I was able to fix it. If you still see strange formatting, please let me know.