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Memphis Flyer Sister Acts

By Hadley Hury

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  The McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College has a bill of two one-acts by Christopher Durang, a contemporary master of comic angst, on view through November 21st. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, directed by David Jilg, and The Actor's Nightmare, directed by Gregory K. Krosnes, are playing in repertory with Richard III (which is directed by Cookie Ewing and ends its run on the 23rd).

Best known for heady satire, Durang ranks with Terrence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein, and up-and-coming Nicki Silver, as one of our era's most cerebral wordsmiths. His work writhes with witty counter-culture questioning, exotic yet illuminating allusions, incisive insights, and just-plain-funny one-liners. It is, perhaps, that Durang has yet to produce a full-length work that reveals a great theatrical heart that has kept him from attaining the commercial success of McNally, but his plays and screenplays are on surer intellectual footing than Wasserstein's, and they share McNally's wonderful sense of theatrical verve and Silver's finesse with dark, discomforting comedy.

It is a pleasure to see that Sister Mary Ignatius still packs a punch. Although a few people at the time of its premiere, and in the two decades since, have denounced the piece as a deeply irreverent exercise in scurrilous anti-Catholic bigotry, millions more have found it to be an exhilarating 75-minute exhortation to examine one's personal and societal relationship to one's spiritual beliefs regardless of faith or denomination. It is quite possible, if not indeed likely, for the open-minded to come away from this play with a few fresh perspectives and considerations of that ecumenically equal-opportunity conundrum: There can be no faith without doubt.

Not to say that Durang doesn't have an apparent axe to grind with his Catholic upbringing and the dogma and social politics of the church. He does, and he brandishes that axe with a gleeful abandon that is deceptively hilarious (his points are actually quite precise and carefully argued). It's not that he considers nothing sacred, it's just that in order to know what is, can, or should be so, one has to put everything on the table. Or rather, in this play, the indomitable Sister Mary Ignatius puts it all on the table for you -- and tells you exactly what you will and will not believe. And, by the end of the piece, any lack of perfect clarity has been dispelled; for the good Sister has dramatically demonstrated the consequences for those who have the temerity to persist in defiant, human imperfection.

Staged in three-quarter round in the intimate McCoy space, Sister Mary places the audience in an urban Catholic school, Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. The lights come up on the solitary figure of Sister Mary (community theatre veteran Carolyn Spratley) as she points out some of the art-work illuminations of Faith on her classroom walls and -- with the literalness and that sense of hyperbolic smugness that barely masks the vulnerability of unquestioning fundamentalism -- explains much of human history, the nature of the soul, heaven and hell, limbo and purgatory, who goes where, who doesn't, and why, all in about four or five minutes.

When some of her former students show up for a reunion, they bring a set of tough contemporary issues: Diane Symonds has experienced rape, abortion, and the long and painful demise of her beloved mother; Aloysius Benheim is alcoholic and beats his wife; Philomena Rostovich is a single mother; Gary Sullivan is gay. These former students also bring with them a great deal of animosity toward Sister Mary. Whether they have lost their faith or maintained some semblance of it, each of them knows he or she was scarred by this teacher's distorting, perverse -- and, as it is finally revealed -- truly sadistic authoritarianism. Sister Mary told Philomena she was stupid and banged her head against the blackboard; she caused Aloysius regularly to urinate in his pants because she would not recognize his raised hand in class. She calls Diane a murderer and tells Gary that, as a sodomite, he is going to go straight to hell. (She says that there is a master list of those who, obviously and unarguably, will. It is composed of a wide range of those whom Sister sees as similar threats to wholesome culture; it includes Linda Lovelace and Comden & Green.)

Durang's subtext is, of course, that all the Sister Marys of the world -- whether Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, or otherwise -- end up contorting innocent lives in direct proportion to the degree to which they have repressed their own spiritual vulnerability and legitimate questions of faith with the false security of fundamentalism and moral presumption. Some people escape into fundamentalism to abnegate the responsibility of personal conscience. Mary Ignatius is that even more horrifying combination of cynical absolutism ("Well, there's the Bible and then there are those things that one priest just said to another priest and then it was said to another priest and ....") and megalomania ("How could you people have turned out like this?! Wasn't I your teacher?")

Durang underscores his points with two theatrical devices that work quite effectively. One is to have a sweetly innocent 7-year-old boy, one of her current students, come in now and then at Sister's beck and call to bring her a glass of water or recite bits of catechism. There is a bracing dramatic dissonance between our notion of a loving, conscientious teacher, helping to form a young life, and the interaction that unfolds between this innocent child and what is slowly being revealed as an insidious agent of corruption. And the bad emotional and ideological chemistry of the confrontation between nun and former students ends in an unexpected conflagration that sends the audience out of the theatre with the play's big open-ended questions hailing down like hot ash.

The cast is good. Spratley opts for a smoother, more complacent Sister Mary than is sometimes the case. Many actors -- including Estelle Parsons, in her acclaimed New York performance -- have projected more of the woman's dangerously repressed self-doubt and her volatile, hateful, reactionism. But Spratley's rendition, even if it loses some of the threat that kicks the dark satire up another level into true dramatic shock, interestingly combines the sinister with the serene. As her elementary-school student, young Carter Jones is everything he should be to make the audience want to rush onto the stage and whisk him away from the monster's clutches. He stands erect and is respectful, charming, and shiny-haired; his rote pieces, delivered in a flutey, well-spoken voice, offer up all the vulnerability of innocence the play needs for its provocative dramatic contrasts.

Pete Montgomery as Aloysius, Matthew J. Nelson as Gary, and DeNae Winesette as Philomena all handle their relatively small roles well.

As Diane, Lindsey Patrick is excellent. She gives the young woman's tale of woe a heartbreaking immediacy. Spent from the ravages of her life, Diane seeks, in a final stab at definition, to convert hopelessness and her subsequent loss of faith into anger and retaliation. She might be able to forgive Sister Mary for the venial sin of cruelty. But she considers it a mortal sin that anyone should willfully mislead a child into believing that human life has strict order and facile moral categories. Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You uses its dark comic power to examine the difference between honoring the innocence of childhood and imposing a sense of fearful security that ill-equips the young for building a personal conscience and for wrestling with moral questions when reality rears its sometimes ugly head.

THE STAR OF THE SECOND piece on the bill, Durang's brief and funny The Actor's Nightmare, is Rhodes student Wes Meador. He takes on his tour-de-force role as an actor facing the ultimate dread of not knowing what play he's in with terrific panache. Meador is a sophomore, but he navigates with finesse the vocal and physical rigors of this showy role.

His trauma is fleshed out by fellow student cast members Summer Oakley, Jill Peterfeso, Christine Callsen, and Andrew Sullivan. They flit in and out, dragging the hapless actor into fragments of Hamlet here, snatches of Noel Coward or Samuel Beckett there. Whether feverishly trying to brush up his Shakespeare, suddenly having to downshift into the stilted pauses of mid-century existentialism, or trying to jump elegantly into the precise languors of the Master, Meador gives the dreaming actor's predicament the mania it needs to keep this theatrical bagatelle spinning.

What is dream? What is reality? Whose dream is it? Should we be concerned with deciphering all of Durang's allusions? Is this an actor, or is it Everyman trying to live Life?

Who cares? The piece whirls by in perhaps less than a half-hour, and watching how elegantly Meador squirms makes it a very merry nightmare indeed.

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