O.C. THEATER REVIEW : 'Sister Mary' Slaps a Ruler at Tyranny

It's nothing if not ironic that the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse is triggering yet another round of anti-arts funding/pro-censorship hysteria with its production of "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You."

While Christopher Durang's black comedy questions certain attitudes toward religion and Catholicism, especially what Durang perceives as its rigid notions of right and wrong and the price we must pay for our frailties, the play's primary target is moral and intellectual tyranny.

Of course, "Sister Mary," which is being given an uncompromising and even brave staging in Costa Mesa by director Stan Wlasick and his cast, will hit many people where it hurts. There were a few walkouts at Friday's performance, and there may be more during the production's run. This play has angered some for years as a slap at central truths that they hold dear.

Durang, a Roman Catholic himself, has defended it as a defense of individual freedom. If you look closely, you'll see that its main thrust goes beyond the often-startling image of a zealous nun going too far in her devotion. "Sister Mary," in its not-always-subtle way, is subversive: It tries to subvert the notion that free will is somehow less important than any other bedrock ideal that spirits our lives.

The play begins with Sister Mary (Roberta Kay) lecturing the audience about heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo. She's got a sense of humor even when talking about such serious subjects, and you can't help but like her. Still, as she goes on, there's this sense that a dangerous martinet is revealing herself.

Sister Mary does not believe in freedom. She believes in rules, the ones laid out in the Bible and by the Vatican. Gray areas lie only in the mind of mortal man. She governs her own life that way and, with an iron hand, young catechism students.

Durang tries to keep it all gentle. You can see how much Sister Mary loves her God, and it's touching, even when you wonder about the repercussions of that love--until the end when everything takes on a startling dramatic edge. The vision of a nun committing murder is not an easy one to take, but it underscores Durang's point about corrupting power.

Up to then, though, Sister Mary's handling of the questions that perplex--the difference between mortal and venial sin, and between virgin birth and immaculate conception--are intriguing and, given Durang's biting wit, very funny.

As Sister Mary, Kay occasionally lets her portrayal veer into a parody of Dana Carvey's "Church Lady." Her head tilts, her lips purse and you half-expect her to start that infamous Church Lady boogie-down. But Sister Mary is a woman of some complexity, and Kay doesn't play her in one dimension.

As usual, "Sister Mary" is joined by Durang's "The Actor's Nightmare," a more innocuous one-act. 'SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU' and 'THE ACTOR'S NIGHTMARE'

A Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse production of one-act plays by Christopher Durang. Directed by Stan Wlasick. With Pepper Hamilton, Roxanne Hawkins, Roberta Kay, Ron Samson, Nick Ken Sigman, Jimmy Stroup and Patrick Stroup. Set by David Scaglione. Lighting by Ponzer Berkman, Sound by Jim Bell. Plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Sept. 30 at 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa. Tickets: $8 and $9. (714) 650-5269.

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