Ahead of the Chapel Off Chapel production of Doubt: A Parable, Catalyst’s Chanel Zagon interviewed actor Penny Larkins about her role as Sister Aloysius in the iconic play about sexual assault within the Catholic Church.
CZ: What do you love most about playing Sister Aloysius?
PL: What’s not to love? I came across John Patrick Shanley’s writing while I was a student at WAAPA. She’s so beautifully black & white when we first meet her. It’s such a beautiful challenge to find the depth and humanity and “reasons why” when you are given the challenge to portray a character who has clearly come to some kind of endgame already.
What has been the main highlight while working on the production?
I am very excited to begin work on the production, particularly to work with Stephen Wheat as director. A small cast is such a dream and I auditioned with Krista [Thomson] and Daniel [Humphris] and felt great chemistry with them so looking forward to that as well. I love the enthusiasm that is surrounding this production. Ryan Lewis, as a new and vibrant producer, has provided a beautifully constructed environment that feels safe. For an actor that’s the greatest gift. The safer you feel, the more risks you can take, the more truthful and challenging the picture we can portray.
Sister Aloysius appears to come across as cynical and bitter, is there a soft side beneath her hard front?
Ah, but I am the actor and I cannot say such things! I can’t judge my character’s outside appearance or else I won’t find or understand her motivations. Yes, is the first answer. Of course she has a soft side and usually the harder the front, the softer the guts it’s protecting. I can’t say too much here. I think she is pragmatic and has made decisions about how and how much to express based on the frameworks and hierarchy that she is forced to function within.
Talk us through the thoughts and emotions that are buzzing through your character, is she ever-so certain the sexual misconduct occurred, or is she too conflicted with doubts?
Again, a tricky one for me to share at this point. She has many thoughts and absolutely believes that she has little doubt about those thoughts. She cannot allow herself to have doubts. The construct of her faith does not allow for doubt. I think that it would be true to say that Sister Aloysius believes that sexual misconduct occurred at the time that she first heard about the interaction. That’s nice and definite, isn’t it?
In rehearsing this role I am reading lines and savouring every imaginative concept that occurs to me in relation to those lines. Can it be true? What does it make me feel? How dark can I go in following a fear? This is part of my role in finding how she has managed to construct such a stark exterior. How does she keep her through-line clear?
Do you have an opinion on your character questioning and investigating the potential sexual misconduct? Do you admire her strong will to seek the truth?
Absolutely. I am a mother of three boys. I am also the child of a father who attended an Irish Catholic boarding school in the 1950s. There are certain actions and behaviours that despite my ability for empathy I will never understand and we must have champions for voices that otherwise would never be heard.
In your opinion, do you think Doubt confronts the Church’s reality of sexual misconduct, which is known to have occurred in the past and in today’s society?
I feel like Doubt shows us how terribly hard it would have been – and still is – to go against that hierarchy and question the process. I certainly think that we are encouraged to acknowledge that the church’s behaviour has not been beyond reproach before this occurrence, which is why it is taken so seriously. It also shows us the ways we can judge the outside exterior of someone and therefore assume certain things about their behaviour. Doubt shows us that we can never be absolutely sure of anything.
Doubt: A Parable will be performed at Chapel Off Chapel from August 13th – 22nd. More information and tickets available via their website.