Pictured is a scene from “Doubt, A Parable” which is currently playing at The Players’ Ring in Portsmouth. SUBMITTED PHOTO

The tiny capsule of a theater, The Players’ Ring, is currently presenting a provocative intimate drama of Catholic suspicion and intrigue. “Doubt, A Parable” was written by John Patrick Shanley and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in addition to the Tony award for Best Play in 2005.

The theater experience at the Portsmouth Players’ Ring is unique. The confines of this tiny brick playhouse place the actors at arm’s length from the audience. The low-ceilinged, former marine workshop creaks with age and barely manages to squeeze a stage out of its tight confinement. Yet, within its humble architecture theater thrives.

What succeeds so well within this exposed brick edifice is small cast dramas. “Doubt, A Parable”  was an excellent choice. For 90 minutes of absorbing Catholic intrigue, we are taken back in time to the Saint Nicolas School in the Bronx section of New York City. The year is 1964, months after the assassination of JFK.

The play opens with a sermon by Father Flynn, a young beloved parish priest, new to Saint Nicolas. His progressive ideas and demeanor have become suspect to the hard- edged and rigidly conservative Sister Aloysius, the aged and crusty principal of the elementary school. She rules the school with an iron hand. She is feared by students and tries to instill the teachers with her cold-hearted moralistic discipline that includes a disdain for art, music, dance, basketball and ball point pens.

It is obvious from the get-go that a power struggle between the young and warm- hearted Father Flynn and the steely and oppressive Head Mistress Sister Aloysius will ensue.

The suspicions and menace of Sister Aloysius are fueled when news of alcohol consumption by one of the altar boys after a private meeting with Father Flynn is revealed.

The scourge of sexual misconduct of a dreaded homosexual nature is suspected.

The play touches on a series of sensitive issues that include gender inequality, sexuality, ethics, carnal shame and salacious behavior, leaving the audience much room for doubt. The ethical dilemma of right and wrong is wrestled with and tested by the proceedings.

Despite its size limitations, the set design is smartly conceived and very well executed. The exposed brick of the theater serves as a perfect background for the school. The creative use of space, two faux stained glass windows and a very clever use of props, takes us successfully to the pulpit, the principal’s office, the basketball court and the outdoor garden on the periphery of the church property. Special notice is well deserved by the sound design and sound production of music that underscores the action from beginning to end. Denise Gordon served as production coordinator, prop mistress, stage manager and sound designer. Her efforts greatly contributed to the success of this play.

In this very intimate theatrical environment, where every bead of sweat and facial expression is under close scrutiny, the acting becomes paramount. In this production all four roles are competently portrayed. A special challenge is the role of Sister Aloysius. Trying to make her credible and able to impart to an audience the validity of her suspicions requires difficult maneuvering. Her ability to justify her malicious actions in an effort of moral rectitude is a lynchpin of the plot.

The production is ably directed by Kim Starling and features Matthew Schofield as Father Flynn, Haley DeValliere as the sweetly innocent Sister James, Sandi Clark as parental parent Mrs. Muller, and Donna M. Goldfarb as Sister Aloysius.

A 2008 film version of “Doubt, A Parable” starred Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn and Viola Davis as Mrs. Muller.

Admission to all productions at the Players’ Ring is a very affordable $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors. The current run of “Doubt, A Parable” will continue through Jan. 22. For reservations and more information call 603-436-8123. The theater is located at 105 Marcy St. in the Strawberry Bank historic district of Portsmouth in Prescott Park. The Players’ Ring is celebrating its 25th season this year. Fifteen productions make up the current season. Next up is Jean Genet’s eerie play of exploitation and revolt, “The Maids” which opens on Jan. 27 and runs through Feb. 12. A pre-show cocktail or dinner is available directly across the street at MAMBO.  For dinner reservations call 603-433-2340.

The Ring has been in active operation since 1992. Its lifeblood is a unique fraternity of actors, writers, technicians and theater generalists using the organization as their springboard of artistic endeavor. Each February the theater hosts an evening of production proposals for the following season. Directors and producers present a brief capsule of their production to the theater’s artistic committee for a slot in next season’s schedule. The theater welcomes new plays, improvisational comedy, or new interpretations of classics. For more information on submitting a proposal for review, call 603-436-8123.

— Greg Morell can be contacted at [email protected]