American Century Theater's explosive 'Sister Mary Ignatius'

Revival of Christopher Durang's controversial one-act will have you arguing all night. Photo: Johannes Markus

ARLINGTON, Virginia, June 23, 2012 – We’re catching up on reviews this week after a busy several of interviewing and play going. First on our list is The American Century Theater’s intriguing current production of Christopher Durang’s memorable—and scandalous—dark comedy one-act, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. It’s now playing at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center’s Theatre II through July 7.

Some theatergoers still confuse Sister Mary Ignatius with the lighter-hearted Nunsense (1985) or Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? (1982). Both of these—the latter based on an earlier novel—take a fairly light-hearted look back on Catholicism as it once was. Dating from 1979, the Obie Award-winning Sister Mary Ignatius was actually the first of the three off the chocks. Of these three nunsensical offerings, Durang’s one-act is clearly, by far, the darkest. The laughs are there to be sure. But events gradually take on a bitter, sinister turn.

Sister Mary Ignatius (Cam Magee) reasserts her authority over former student Aloysius (Arturo Tolentino.) All photos credit: Johannes Markus.

Sister Mary Ignatius takes place in 1979, the year the play actually premiered. But through fault in thought, word, and deed, Sister Mary looks back to the 1950s and 1960s when an almost medieval flavor of Catholicism confronted the short but surprisingly eventful reign of Pope John XXIII and the modernizing fallout of Vatican II. That memorable and lengthy conference of the hierarchy arguably dragged the Catholic Church into the 20th century with initiatives that ranged from permitting the Mass to be read in the vernacular of each country rather than rattled off in a Latin that laymen could no longer understand; to updated liturgies, music, and, in time, even attitudes toward Church, government, and virtue.

The changes delighted many Catholics, particularly the laity. But they were resented, often bitterly, by old line Catholics and clergy alike who often felt that their beloved Church was veering dangerously close to heresy.

In Sister Mary, one immediately senses the conflict between a nostalgia for the past’s certain certainties and the chaos of our more recent times. Entering Theatre II before the play begins, the audience confronts a visual blast from the past—particularly true for Boomers of a certain age who actually attended Catholic schools. Instead of traditional seating for the most part, most of the audience has the opportunity to be seated at one of the school desks laid out in neat rows in a parochial school classroom that virtually screams late 1950s via the magic of Steven Royal’s scenic design.

It’s all there: the chunky blonde oak teacher’s desk, the ancient blackboard, and, perhaps most importantly, the centrally mounted crucifix flanked by three mandatory portraits. A classic portrait of Jesus is placed at the center of this arrangement, flanked on one side by a portrait of the current pope—in 1979, that was the newly-elected John Paul II, while in the 1950s it was likely the ascetic Pius XII—and on the other, a portrait of America’s only Catholic President, the late and continually lamented John F. Kennedy. The symbolism was and is perfect, with Christ at the center and with his successors, the current pope and the Catholic Caesar by His side.

Adding to the air of authenticity, even the audience programs provide 1950s atmospherics, styled in mottled black and white, almost exactly duplicating the old-fashioned theme books in which students took down notes and/or used to scribble paragraphs for essay-style exams.

Into this educational sanctum sanctorum enters Sister Mary Ignatius herself, spectacularly realized in this production by Cam Magee. Dressed in what’s likely to be recognizable as an old-style black and white habit of the Ursuline Order, Sister MI is the kind of nun that every Catholic school kid encountered sooner or later in the journey from first to eighth grade in the standard parochial system. She’s somewhere between the age of mom and grandma.

Most of her person is concealed beneath her shapeless habit, with only her hands and aging face providing evidence that she’s really a human female. Her rimless glasses and precise pronunciation give her an appropriate air of religious gravitas. And, while seeming kindly on the surface, she drops copious hints that she’s an alpha nun and not to be messed with.

Fully half of the play is a one-woman show. Sister M engages the audience and proceeds to teach them, via her meandering but carefully crafted methodology, what’s required of them in both the secular and religious worlds, which, to her, are actually one and the same with a strong tilt toward the latter.

Every once in a while, she calls in her favorite prop, young Thomas (played with charming naïveté by young Colin Trinity), who brings her a glass of water, correctly answers questions whose answers were laid out in the classic Baltimore Catechism, and occasionally, is invited to sit on sister’s lap. Nothing untoward ever happens to Thomas. But the creepiness of these little scenes is still surprisingly uncomfortable.

Complications arise when, without apparent warning, a small troupe of twenty- and thirty-something former students shows up in crude costumes to perform a nativity skit they allege Sister Mary had requested. The skit begins innocently enough, but soon takes a nasty turn as long-buried childhood-student traumas bubble to the surface, ultimately resulting in the play’s bizarre and unpleasant finale during which Sister Mary definitively rescues her former charges from the eternal fires of Gehenna.

Diane (Tiffany Garfinkle) and Gary (Grant Cloyd) as the BVM and Joseph in a nativity skit that won’t get the ‘nihil obstat.’

As we’ve indicated, Sister Mary Ignatius is the star of this nearly one-woman show. In the title role, Cam Magee virtually channels this old-style nun as she veers to and fro, from sisterly, Christian kindness to the vengefulness of a wrathful God. It’s the best, most effective individual acting performance we’ve seen since Edward Gero’s riveting portrayal of Salieri in last season’s Round House production of Amadeus.

As we’ve already indicated, Colin Trinity also shines in his brief but winning appearances as the innocent, almost divinely clueless young Thomas. Hat tips as well go to D. Grant Cloyd, Tiffany Garfinkle, Anne Nottage, and Arturo Tolentino as Sister Mary’s fragile, bitter, terminally damaged former charges. It’s a chilling collective portrayal of young Catholics portrayed—an effect further magnified by the Church’s seemingly never-ending pederasty scandal that gradually revealed itself many years after Durang actually wrote his play.

Random thoughts on religion, education, drama, and society

It’s tough to place this 1979 play in a proper context today. Joe Banno, whose quietly brilliant realization of Durang’s purpose makes this production extraordinarily effective, is said to regard the play as more a documentary than a satire. But it all depends on your point of view. The 1950s, as understood in the “settled science” of today’s pop cultural milieu, are today regarded as having been fairly dark and repressive for all children, most especially those enrolled in parochial schools.

But again, it all depends on your point of view. This reviewer actually remembers his own Catholic school days in northern Ohio with a mixture of nostalgia and misgivings. My Ursuline nuns were a hardy and hearty lot, influenced by doctrinal and, occasionally, apocryphal Christian mainstream thought, all of which they drilled into us while also pounding in an astoundingly thorough regimen of the 3 Rs—something today’s public school kids see very little of to their detriment.

Yes, discipline could be swift and terrifying. But then, when sister called home and explained the situation to our parental units, we usually got smacked around again for the same transgression once we returned home. This was an era when corporal punishment was in fashion. No doubt it did veer into brutality and abuse on occasion, given the school, the family, or the situation.

Philomena (Anne Nottage) recites her lack of contrition for a disapproving Sister Mary (Cam Magee).

Then again, one wonders these days whether a little healthy fear of authority today might not cut down, at least a little bit, on the child-monsters who turn many of today’s classrooms—particularly in inner city public schools—into violent freak shows creating generations of drop outs. No one, then or now, seems to have found any middle ground, and we’re all the worse for it. You don’t cure one apparent extreme by adopting its opposite.

Theologically, too, 1950s parochial schools have been viewed as oppressive and repressive. But were they really? By contemporary standards, religious indoctrination in those days, particularly in Catholic schools, was rigorous and unyielding. The Baltimore Catechism, at least for us, provided the marching orders of the day, as it contained, absolutely, each and every answer to each and every cosmic question that we’d ultimately have to confront in this Vale of Tears.

“Who made me?” “God made me.” Simple, easy. We all had answers, which, in their own way provided us with tranquility and comfort as children, at least to varying degrees. Ask “Who made me?” today, and you’re likely to have a pitched battle without end, whatever the environment. Whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish—there were, statistically, no Muslims here in those days—all religious expressions had their answers to our existence, and that was that. Oppose them and you were out.

Today’s main religious expressions seem to have gone in the opposite direction, resulting in quarrelling, anger, and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, outright schism over the interpretation of doctrine. The media love to denounce the primitivism of Christian fundamentalists. But today’s fundamentalists—the secular left-wing statists who’ve taken over many of America’s institutions—are at least as nasty and deterministic as the Baptists and Catholics of old were supposed to have been.

It’s all this kind of stuff that gets dredged up when you attend a play like Sister Mary Ignatius. Ultimately, Christopher Durang is perhaps not the best of guides to help us revisit that era. Durang’s gradual realization that he was gay—something he dare not reveal in an earlier Catholic environment and something that might not even go down too well today—seems to have led him to lay most of the blame for his internal sufferings on his Catholic educational environment.

Indeed, there may be some blame here, but to lay it all off one abstract entity is to conveniently avoid acknowledging any self-responsibility for one’s own issues, a facile and convenient trope for today’s artists and intellectuals.

So, let’s discuss…

It’s impossible, at least for this reviewer, to attend a play like Sister Mary Ignatius without riffing a bit on what it all means. Fortunately, for American Century’s audiences, the company plans to hang around each evening to field Q & A and discussions about just the sort of things we’ve discussed above and probably more. If you’re interested enough to attend this play, it might prove even more interesting to hang around afterwards and wrestle with the problem of God, religion, and the meaning of life in general. This production is simply that kind of play.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars.)

For tickets and information about Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, call American Century at 703-998-4555 or visit the company’s website here. Play runs through July 7, 2012.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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