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THEATER REVIEW : ‘Sister Mary’ Is a Witty Diatribe, but Could Have Been Much More

“Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” has the feel of a searing class reunion skit in which an angry but witty writer made a composite of all the nuns he hated most and showed how, in the name of God, she bullied and injured those she taught.

Because the writer is Christopher Durang, some of the jokes are wickedly funny:

- If eating meat on Fridays is no longer a sin, then will those who ate meat on Fridays before the ruling have to stay in hell? (Yes.)

- If pre-Vatican II doctrine decreed that unbaptized babies go to limbo with no chance of heaven, and post-Vatican II says they go to purgatory with heaven down the road, do all the pre-Vatican II babies have to stay in limbo, too? (Yes.)

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- If St. Christopher is no longer considered a saint, where do all the prayers to St. Christopher go? (To Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.)

One imagines that Catholics like Durang--who has admitted to having a grandmother just like Sister Mary--might find the work an exorcism of unpleasant memories through the healing power of humor. Other Catholics, like the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which banned it, may object to having a spokesman for doctrinal inconsistencies so devoid of love, charity or simple human kindness.

The show, produced by Catfish Productions at the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza through April 9, should spark some heated discussions at its planned forums each Thursday night after the performance.

Sherryl Nova’s direction stresses the black-and-white nature of Sister Mary’s thinking, an emphasis literally underscored by the checked floor of Paul Kruse’s set to the sister’s habit to the Oreo cookies she distributes as rewards to her prized robotic pupil (Ashley Starks) for catechism well learned.

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Within these stark parameters, Jo Ann Reeves brings as much warmth to the Sister as she can. Sister Mary, as Reeves plays her, derives great comfort from her beliefs. For her, the catechism is a map to the kingdom of heaven to be amended by new Vatican rulings in much the same way that maps of the Old World were updated by explorers in the New World. She simply doesn’t understand why her students would stray from the path and would kill to keep them heavenbound.

The surreal violence of the second section, in which Sister Mary is confronted by her grown-up, disillusioned students in the ‘80s, has chilling overtones in the light of the Salman Rushdie incident. The seeming absurdity of a pistol-toting former student out for revenge against the gunslinging sister begins to seem chillingly non fantastic in a world where a religious leader feels a murder contract is an appropriate way to deal with blasphemy.

Perhaps the greatest crime of Sister Mary, though, is how much better a play it could have been. It starts out strongly, with Sister Mary’s beatifically delivered monologues and then fractures when the four ex-students come back to haunt her. What if the show didn’t deteriorate into a stock sister vs. homosexual student (Wayne Tibbetts), unwed mother (Laurie Lehmann-Gray), the alcoholic (Rano Freeman) and the woman who had two abortions (Kimberley Wells)?

What if, instead, a dialectic between faith and reason continued between the doctrine preached by nuns and priests, sequestered from the world, with the daily compromises made by those faced with everyday modern relationships?

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Only then would “Sister Mary Ignatius” cease being a roast and and start being an examination.


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