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DramaWatch: A life in the theater, without (or with) a ‘Doubt’

With a fine production of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" at Lakewood Theatre, director Antonio Sonera says he's calling it a career. Plus: Last chance for a few good shows.

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Antonio Sonera, up close and personal. Photo: Tim Krause

In 2018, ArtsWatch columnist Bobby Bermea published an extensive interview with the longtime director Antonio Sonera. The piece wasn’t tied to a production running at the time or to any particular news, but served as a look inside the theater as craft and career, from the perspective of mutual admirers whose early work together – in shows such as a storied production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog for Artists Rep – raised their respective profiles.

Yet, amid the pair’s commiserating about the challenges of the lives of theater artists, the piece contained something of a warning; perhaps, a future shadow glimpsed.

“During our conversation,” Bermea wrote, “he vacillated between what’s next for Badass Theatre [Sonera’s company at the time] and wanting to drop out of theater altogether, a possibility he proposed with some gravity. And yet … like most thespians I know, he’s locked in an emotionally abusive relationship with his art form. She can beat him, treat him like dirt, break his heart, steal his money and he still always comes back. He knows he should leave but he just can’t.”

Or perhaps he can. Sonera now says that his latest show – a finely honed production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt for Lakewood Theatre, through April 8 – will be his last.

“I’d actually decided that the 2021 season was going to be my last, because it was 35 years since I started and that seemed like a good, round number.”

Sonera had tried drama school in Los Angeles for a year, he said, but decided he wanted to skip studying and get straight to working. So he moved back home to Portland, and marked the start of his career with his first professional show, as an actor, in a 1986 production of Alice in Wonderland – way back when Artists Rep had a children’s theater program. He shifted to directing beginning in 1991.

“If you look back over his career his record holds up against any local director you can name,” Bermea wrote in that 2018 piece. “El Paso Blue, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, El Grito Del Bronx, Boleros for the Disenchanted, Invasion!, Sans Merci, God of Carnage and his most recent piece World Builders all were among the most memorable productions of the seasons in which they appeared. A lot of accolades and awards are sprinkled throughout that small sampling of Sonera’s work — as well as a lot of risks being taken and buttons being pushed.”

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“I think I’ve had a long and really wonderful career,” Sonera said, chatting by phone earlier this week. “When I did Invasion”  – the production that launched his Badass Theatre Company in 2013 – “I thought about dropping the mic right there.”

But, as will happen in the theater, both opportunities and challenges cropped up.

On the plus side were memorable productions of a pair of Johnna Adams plays, Sans Merci, a gut-wrenching drama about grief, and World Builders, an exploration of fantasies and psychopharmacology. One factor on the other side of the ledger was the shows that didn’t happen. “It seemed like every time I wanted to get the rights for something with Badass, I didn’t; there was so much competition.” For instance, he’d wanted to produce Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, but the performance rights were granted instead to the bigger, more established Artists Rep. Sonera liked that other production, but said he’d have given the script a very different approach.

Another negative dynamic revolved around the box office. Both in his interview with Bermea and again recently, Sonera lamented the disappointing attendance for some of his shows, Sans Merci in particular. “For any good piece of theater, there’s a lot of work that’s put in,” he said. “I’ve performed in front of one person before: It doesn’t feel great.”

Antonio Sonera, in his element. Photo: Russell J Young

As many conversations about life in the arts do, the chat with Sonera comes around to money matters. For many years Sonera has made his living in hotel management – except for a while when he left a $50,000 per year job (“which in 1997 was pretty good”) to work full-time at Milagro Theatre for $12,000. As he gets older – he’s 56 – he finds long days at work followed by long nights at rehearsal harder to keep up.

“I don’t want to make my whole ‘retirement’ about money, but it’s definitely a factor. I need to be putting money away for the future. If I looked at the 200 or so hours that I put into Doubt, if instead I went out and drove those hours for DoorDash in the evenings, it’s a significant difference in money.”

So why didn’t he stick with his plan to call it quits in 2021? He wanted to do one last show with Luisa Sermol. The two are longtime friends who once dated for several years, and Sermol has won Drammy Awards for her acting in shows Sonera has directed. He originally planned and cast Doubt with her in mind for the central role of Sister Aloysius. But when Sermol was cast for a show in San Francisco, where she now lives, he instead chose Diane Kondrat, who gives the production its requisite spine of granite.

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A discussion of casting led Sonera to divulge his secret to directing: “I surround myself with people who are more talented and smarter than I am. And my job is to inspire them to do great work.”

“As for my retirement,” he concluded, “it feels like it’s more significant to other people than it is to me. 

“I just want more people to come out and see Doubt.”

***

From left in “Doubt”: Diane Kondrat, Todd Hermanson and Ariel Puls. Photo by Triumph Photography

If indeed the Lakewood production of Doubt is Sonera’s theater swan song, it’s a strong closer. It’s not audacious, after the manner of say, Invasion! Rather, it’s a deeply considered, tightly crafted play that packs thorny themes and broad cultural resonances into the lives of just four characters and about that many playing spaces, all on the grounds of a Catholic church and school in 1964.

Narratively, the play is something of a battle between a priest, Father Flynn, who wants to foster a warmer, more welcoming environment, and the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius, who views any loosening of rules and habits as the proverbial slippery slope to hell. Their attitudinal conflict is brought into sharp relief when Aloysius begins to suspect that Flynn is up to no good with a particular student, a boy who is otherwise ostracized as the first and only Black at the school.

“I don’t think it’s a play about the Catholic Church,” Sonera said during a talkback following last Sunday’s matinee. “I think it’s a play about progressive as opposed to traditional values.” He pointed to the country’s current political divisions, and to election denialism in particular, as the conflict in question.

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I think this is a misunderstanding of the particulars of the play and our society on a few points, but mostly I think Sonera’s interpretation sells Shanley short. Though one can, and maybe should, draw political lessons from Doubt, the story’s central concerns and its essential methods are much more about philosophy. I think the story is about the complexity of ethics in an ambiguous world, where uncertainty pulls us one way but urgency forces us another.

I don’t think, however, that Sonera’s view of the text has lessened his care with it or marred the production in any way. I’ve seen a few different stagings of Doubt, as well as the film adaptation, and I’m tempted to think that it can’t be done poorly, so solid is Shanley’s craft in establishing character, doling out information, suggestion, revelation, and both building and subverting expectations through those means. The play maps a world of indeterminacy so well precisely because its methods are so surefooted.

Then again, such precision isn’t necessarily easy to render onstage. Yet everything here seems as it should be, starting with the austere elegance of John Gerth’s scenic design, an efficient triptych of courtyard, church and principal’s office.

Kondrat is, as seems to be her custom, magnificent. Her Aloysius is capable, watchful, stern – not comically repressed even while comically repressive. Whether she is righteous or merely self-righteous seems secondary to a kind of native will to power. Todd Hermanson’s Father Flynn is appropriately amiable yet also shows flashes of presumptuousness, fear and an almost childlike pleading. Buffeting these two great forces are the innocent young Sister James, whose youthful optimism and effortful self-discipline are evident in Ariel Puls’ performance, and Mrs. Muller, mother of the unseen boy at the center of the matter, who has well-weighted practicality and defiance as played by Victoria Alvarez-Chacon.

The flattened stage

Philomena Cunk on the challenges of the actor’s art: 

Closing

David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Kimberly Akimbo has been back in the news of late because of a new musical adaptation, but a production in Portland by Twilight Theatre reminds us of the charm and emotional weight of the original. This staging, directed by Greg Shilling, centers on a deceptively affecting performance from Rose Bonomo as the title character, a teenage girl with a rare medical disorder that has caused her to age at 4 and a half times the normal human rate. On the cusp of her 16th birthday, she’s nearing the end of her life expectancy. 

“Kimberly Akimbo” at Twilight Theatre. Photo: Hashbrook Photography

The title comes courtesy of Kimberly’s nerdy friend, who can’t stop making anagrams from names and phrases, but the word “akimbo” speaks to Kimberly’s odd positioning within time and within her comically dysfunctional family. In the face of domestic chaos, Bonomo’s Kimberly moves with a deadpan reserve that makes the eventual, inevitable emergence of suppressed emotions feel like fireworks.

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***

A final weekend for “Records From Babel.” Photo courtesy Our Shoes Are Red.

Speaking of time, the calendar is a chopping block also for the Borges-inspired experimentalism of Records From Babel by Our Shoes Are Red, the Broadway bus-and-trucker of the campy yet crafty musical Hairspray, and Third Rail’s bluesy, poetic social commentary I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t.

The best line I read this week

“Internet memes sometimes refer to Florida as ‘the America of America,’ but to a Brit like me, it’s more like the Australia of America: The wildlife is trying to kill you, the weather is trying to kill you, and the people retain a pioneer spirit, even when their roughest expedition is to the 18th hole. Florida’s place in the national mythology is as America’s pulsing id, a vision of life without the necessary restriction of shame.”

Helen Lewis, in The Atlantic, on the rise of Ron DeSantis

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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