Portland Stage’s little black box Studio Theater was transformed into a Catholic school Friday night by the University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre’s rendition of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt.”

The intimate, no-frills location was ideal for the production. In keeping with the monastic setting, only a handful of props were used to set the scene. But there was one prop in particular that really radiated the ecclesiastic feel.

A large stained-glass window of flowers, shaped like a daisy, hung at the back of the stage. It was mesmerizing to behold, and served as a wonderfully symbolic focal point for the story.

“Doubt” is set in 1964 in the Bronx, New York. Amid nationwide unrest following President Kennedy’s assassination, the St. Nicholas Church School has admitted its first black student.

The school principal, Sister Aloysius (Ashley Rood), soon suspects Father Flynn (David Bliss) is molesting the boy. Unsubstantiated accusations fly, and Sister James (Hannah Perry) finds herself caught in the middle, filled with doubt and confusion. Is Sister Aloysius right, or is the mild-mannered priest innocent?

Moviegoers may recall Shanley’s 2008 film version, nominated for five Oscars and starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis and the recently deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman. The play scales down the film’s 68-member cast to four, with Pamela Yvette Smith rounding out the cast as the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller.

Like the set, USM’s cast is small, yet spectacular.

Given the controversial subject matter, “Doubt” could be easily turned into a somber sermon about the evils of the Catholic Church, but the play is more clever than that. And USM’s cast does a fine job capturing both the serious implications of the hotbed topic, and the play’s underlying wit.

Rood was unflinching Friday as Father Flynn’s strait-laced accuser, giving a praise-worthy, stone-faced performance. There wasn’t the slightest hint of a smile on her lips, even when she artfully delivered quips that cracked up the audience.

Perry provided character contrast as the naive teacher, Sister James. Compassion, uncertainty, innocence and confusion were just a few of the many emotions that played across her face. And, like Rood, Perry slyly slipped in humor among the serious.

Much of Bliss’ performance is delivered in the form of sermons, directed at the audience, his parishioners. When he opened the play Friday with a sermon about doubt, it felt like the audience was no longer seated in a theater, but in the pews of a church.

Although Smith appears in only one scene, her performance packs a punch. She nails the classic image of a 1960s black woman, delivering a memorable combination of sass and no-nonsense realism.

USM’s decision to stage “Doubt” couldn’t have been timelier. With the topic of Catholic priest sex scandals igniting the media, it’s a topic on the minds of many. This production of the play is undeniably thought-provoking, but in a way that’s entertaining, engaging and non-judgmental.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:[email protected]___________________This story was updated on Feb. 10 at 4:15 p.m. to correct the name of Hannah Perry.