The competing forces of law and grace, modernity and tradition collide with intense personal clarity in "Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Pulitzer winner. Two sharply drawn characters -- each working out a crisis of faith -- spar for the souls of those around them. In the wreckage, no one survives whole.

Ten Thousand Things' production of "Doubt," directed by Peter Rothstein, is one of those rare dramas perfectly wrought in all its pieces.

Kris Nelson portrays the charismatic Father Flynn, a priest celebrating the fresh air of Vatican II in 1964. He preaches tolerance and shared pain, the necessity to love people on their own terms. Sally Wingert is Sister Aloysius, who runs the parish school with a white-knuckle grip on her convictions. Students should be taught, not indulged, and for God's sake they should not be using ballpoint pens; that is what fountain pens are for!

Caught between these two is Sister James (Jane Froiland), a well-meaning eighth-grade teacher whose compassion and admiration for Flynn's methods raise the hackles of Aloysius. Called into Aloysius' office, James undergoes a withering examination about her students' academics. Yet, with Aloysius the conversation is never simply about grades. In a fine illustration of stage work, Rothstein moves Wingert's Aloysius methodically around the square playing area as she queries her naif, like a spider slowly stringing up the web. Once she has boxed in her prey, Aloysius extracts what she wants: information about a young boy that she believes compromises Father Flynn.

The other pawn in Aloysius' game is Mrs. Muller (Regina Marie Williams), a strong working-class woman both offended and wounded by her son being drawn into controversy.

Wingert's Aloysius has a blunt certainty in her accusations. But rather than playing the role as a stiff-spined robot, Wingert finds an almost feral intensity -- an insane meanness -- that animates Aloysius' learned fear of modernity. She believes that if she loosens her convictions -- drops her rigid mask -- the fragile and passionate fears in her soul will devour her.

Nelson's Flynn expresses with his sensitive eyes a friendly compassion. He is gentle and playful with the boys he coaches in basketball. He's solicitous of Sister James, soothing her fears. But he shows a volatile passion when Aloysius attacks. Nelson takes the natural frustration and anger to the level of raging panic as Flynn realizes he is at the mercy of a woman incapable of mercy.

We leave not certain of the truth -- the disturbing reaction that Shanley intended.

Rothstein's production breathes with confidence, clearly expressing the metaphoric stakes in each actor. Simply put, he knows this play. It is a tightly etched, 75-minute parable on how we live in relationship with each other and ourselves. It should absolutely be seen.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299