WHEN a play begins with a sermon by a priest in front of a giant lit cross filling the dark backdrop of the stage, it could be a sign we are in for a debilitating evening of religious rhetoric, and certainly religion is the theme of Doubt, a Parable showing at Chichester Festival Theatre.

However, it is play that packs a punch as within the walls of St Nicholas Catholic Church and Convent School, in New York’s Bronx in the early 1960s, the old religious order is being challenged, that a priest can do no wrong.

Father Brendan Flynn is a handsome, athletic, young priest dedicated to his church and school. He is popular with both pupils and nuns until Sister Aloysius, the Mother Superior, an inspired performance by Monica Dolan, crosses his path.

She doesn’t like Father Flynn and sets about working her poison against him by first setting the seeds of doubt in the mind of young Sister James (a superb Jessica Rhodes} when she accuses Father Flynn of being a paedophile.

The young nun, bewildered but also afraid to talk back to her superior, listens as Sister Aloysius says she has seen the priest touching one of the boys and taking too strong an interest in him, and she is going to report him to the senior church authorities.

Shocked by what she hears, that mother superior is accusing a priest of doing any wrong, she tries to fight back saying, in a quivering voice, states she has never seen Father Flynn touch the boy or misbehave with any of the pupils.

Aware gossip about him is going round the school, Father Flynn takes centre stage to deliver a powerful sermon demonstrating, with feathers, how it is just unproven words fly away in the wind.

The scene is not so gentle when the priest and Sister Aloysius meet head to head as he tries to plead his innocence which is lost on the embittered, peduditial nun who tells him she has already sent in a report about him. To strengthen her cause she invites the boy’s mother to her office to tell her what she fears is happening to her son.

When he hears this, Father Flynn explodes with anger telling Sister Aloysius she is wrong but nothing is going to move her getting the priest punished and sent away.

It is at this point the author, John Patrick Shanley, has now created a feeling of doubt in the audience as to whether this gentle, affable priest, could be guilty. For, as he states, “doubt, so often experienced initially as weakness, that changes things”, and it is in the convent, as throughout religion in the ‘60s the old order being threatened and a priest’s calling is at stake.

Thanks to sensitive direction by Lis Williams none of the suffocating drama is lost and the whole production is heightened by the fine acting of Sam Spruell as Father Flynn.

Doubt a Parable runs until Saturday, February 5. For tickets, see https://www.cft.org.uk/whats-on/event/doubt