Pair Seek to Close Play in Costa Mesa as 'Anti-Religious'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A couple who launched a controversy over city arts grants earlier this summer are now seeking the cancellation of a Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse production of "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," calling it a work of "anti-religious bigotry" that violates recently adopted grant restrictions.

After listening to complaints by city resident John Feeney and his wife, Ernie Feeney, the City Council on Tuesday asked the city attorney's office to investigate charges that the production violates a clause prohibiting the use of grant money for "the conduct of any religious or political activity."

The Feeneys have charged that Christopher Durang's caustic satire, in which a zealous nun lectures the audience about Catholic dogma, constitutes a religious activity.

At a City Council study session Tuesday, Councilwoman Sandra L. Genis said she would seek to have the matter put on the agenda for public discussion at the next council meeting on Monday. A report from the city attorney's office is also expected at that meeting.

"I would like to see the play canceled," said Ernie Feeney outside Tuesday's study session. "It will not stop here. It will be pursued."

"I don't understand how the city can sponsor anti-Christian bigotry," added husband John Feeney. "I think that they should get their money back."

David Sharp, a playhouse board member and co-producer of the play, countered: "It wasn't our intent to offend them. We view this largely as an attempt by these few to censor us."

The Feeneys launched a controversy in June when they complained to the City Council about flyers distributed by South Coast Repertory supporting the embattled National Endowment for the Arts. The city delayed distribution of $175,000 in grants to 13 arts groups while investigating whether SCR used any city funds to print or distribute the flyers.

The funds, including $30,000 for SCR, were eventually released, but the city in July approved new language prohibiting the use of arts grants for "obscene matters" or for religious or political activities. The city was heavily criticized by arts activists and the American Civil Liberties Union for the action.

City Atty. Thomas Kathe said at the time the new language was drafted that he was merely spelling out state law, and that legal determinations would be left up to the courts, not the city. The ACLU argued, however, that the language was vague and left the door open for city officials to decide the suitability of artworks. The brouhaha over "Sister Mary" provides the first test of the new restrictions.

Martin Benson, co-founder and artistic director of SCR, said Tuesday that the fracas bears out his concerns about interpretation of the new city arts grant language. "Where do you draw the line?" he asked. "It seems to me the whole idea is nonsense, because art will provoke someone if it's doing its job."

"Sister Mary" was a last-minute substitute as the opening production of the new Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse season. "Born Yesterday" had been announced, but had to be canceled when the theater could not obtain rights to produce the play. "Steppin' Out" was the first choice as a substitute, but when auditions were held late in July, it was decided that the playhouse could not assemble enough actors to cast it.

An emergency board meeting was held Aug. 2, and "Sister Mary" was chosen. Sharp defended the decision Tuesday: "Given the same circumstances, I'd do it again."

Sharp said the production does not violate the city's cultural arts grants agreement, and in any case city funds were not used to produce the play.

"We're obviously not obscene. We are not fostering religious or political activity," Sharp said. "It's an irreverent satire that does not present anybody's religious views whatsoever, save perhaps the author's."

Sharp said the playhouse board would draft a statement on the controversy, which may be released today. The playhouse received $20,000 from the city in July; in addition, the city provides the playhouse with rent-free facilities and pays utility costs.

Ernie Feeney, who said she attended Friday's performance of "Sister Mary," was joined at Tuesday's study session by Jo Ellen Allen, president of the Newport Beach-based "pro-family" group Eagle Forum. Allen issued a statement urging the council to "withdraw funding from the playhouse and to reconsider future funding unless all forms of bigotry are excluded from their performances."

Olive Meehan, another Costa Mesa resident who attended the study session, said she represented a number of local citizens upset over the play. "This goes beyond satire and viciously attacks the beliefs of the Catholic faith." 'SISTER MARY' REVIEWED: F1

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