Satirical examinations of fear, experienced by an accountant-actor and young students confronting the consequences of sin, are on stage this month at Bay Theatre in two works by playwright Christopher Durang.
The fears are revealed in Durang's one-act plays, "The Actor's Nightmare" and "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You."
"Sister Mary" won the Obie award for its off-Broadway run from 1981 to 1983, and "Actor's Nightmare" is a zany exploration of growing absurdity.
In her program notes, artistic director Janet Luby said she chose to stage "Sister Mary" as an 80th birthday gift for her Irish Catholic mother, who she said described it as the funniest play she had ever read. Luby envisioned Bay Theatre regular Rena Cherry Brown in the Sister Mary role, and asked Richard Pilcher, who directed the company's productions of "Wit," "Beyond Therapy" and "Master Harold and the Boys," to helm Durang's double bill.
Also an actor, Pilcher reflects in his director's note on his recurring dream of being onstage without having rehearsed the scene — as illustrated in "Actor's Nightmare" — and a different nightmare in which "an authority figure has control over you and abuses it, as Sister Mary does."
Catholic or not, Pilcher asks the audience "to imagine you are attending a lecture by Sister Mary in the mid-1980s and see how you react."
A word of caution to devout Catholics: Some may take offense at Durang's criticisms. Others, though, may be struck by the play's contemporary relevance given the present upheaval in the Vatican, and may find much to amuse and admire in both one-act productions.
In "Actor's Nightmare," Steve Carpenter portrays central character George Spelvin, an accountant who wanders backstage at a show to discover he will play scenes in works penned by Coward, Shakespeare and Beckett.
Dressed as Hamlet, Carpenter's Spelvin encounters his first problem when actress Sarah Siddons, played by Valerie Leonard, confronts him, ready for her role in Coward's "Private Lives." The haughtier Leonard becomes, the more frantically Carpenter strives to deliver lines. The fun increases when Carpenter's bride, played by Alicia Sweeney, arrives on the balcony to insist that he return to their honeymoon suite.
Both one-act productions are graced by three of Bay Theatre's associate artists: Valerie Leonard, playing Diane Symonds in addition to Siddons; Steve Carpenter, who plays Aloysius in "Sister Mary" in addition to Spelvin; and Brown, who plays brassy stage manager Meg in "Actor's Nightmare" in addition to the lead role in "Sister Mary."
They are joined by Sweeney and Paul Edward Hope, each playing roles in both one-acts.
As Hamlet, Carpenter spouts lines belonging to Shakespeare characters ranging from Romeo to Lady Macbeth. His scene in Beckett's "Endgame," played against Sweeney's cockney girl, finds both seated in trash cans, establishing a comic high with perfectly placed pauses and facial expressions.
"Sister Mary" highlights the work of Brown, who won the Helen Hayes Award for her portrayal of cancer patient Vivian Bearing in Bay's "Wit" and received another Helen Hayes Award for her performance in "A Delicate Balance." She recently was nominated again for her portrayal of Violet Weston in "August: Osage County" with Keegan Theatre.
Brown embodies all-knowing teaching nun Sister Mary as she confronts students in a schoolroom displaying portraits of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Jesus on the cross. Sister Mary introduces us to heaven, purgatory and hell, and to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, all interpreted in mind-boggling detail.
Sister Mary is joined by 7-year-old student Thomas, well played by Andrew Sharpe, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Rolling Knolls Elementary School. Andrew alternates in the role with Parker Warren. Thomas is a model student who correctly answers catechism questions and is rewarded with cookies. But he's subjected to Sister Mary's veering off into descriptions of hell, more crowded than populous purgatory, and heaven, which seems nearly the exclusive province of saints.
Brown's Mary amuses the audience in her rigid disapproval of tolerance toward sinners and her convictions about the hereafter — until she is confronted by former students who return to stage a strange pageant depicting the manger birth through the crucifixion.
The comedy makes a dark U-turn as former favorite student Diane (Leonard) recounts her despair at her mother's cancer and her own victimization. The others share their difficulties in adjusting to reality beyond the school room, and hold Sister Mary largely responsible.
Both one-acts are recommended to theatergoers who appreciate actors of the highest level who confront their fears and still manage to bring laughs and surprises along the way.