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‘Sister Mary Ignatius’ Takes Dogma and Certitude to the Limit

Comedy Arts Theater of Charlotte run goes through April 30

A nun, Sister Mary Ignatius, is on her knees praying to the heavens while behind her there are two people dressed like the Biblial Mary and Joseph and someone wearing a mustard-colored sheet over their head with eye holes poked out like some sort of cheap ghost costume
The cast of ‘Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.’ (Photo by Adam Cannavo/Reel Photos & Video)

For playwright Christopher Durang and now for the Queen City, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You has a special historical significance. When it premiered in 1979, Sister Mary was presented Off-Broadway in an evening of one-act plays that included works by Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Marsha Norman, Romulus Linney, and Murray Schisgal – a pretty decent lineup. 

Just that billing would have put Durang on the map. More distinctions swiftly followed; not only was Durang’s satire proclaimed the best of that distinguished group, he and Elizabeth Franz — who would ultimately play the title role in three separate productions — won Obie Awards for that season.

While the Innovative Theatre production of 1989, directed by George Brown and starring Barbara Hird of Lost Colony fame, may not have been a Charlotte premiere, it marked the auspicious debut of Brown’s company.

Over the next five years, as actor/director wunderkind Alan Poindexter moved into the Innovative orbit, critically acclaimed productions gushed forth, including The Illuminati, The Chairs, Old Times, and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Innovative is also fondly recalled for its laugh riots at the legendary Pterodactyl Club, chiefly Psycho Beach Party and the imperishable Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.

Although Comedy Arts Theater of Charlotte (CATCh) has been around since 2017, presenting standup and improv comedy most weekends at their South Boulevard location, Sister Mary Ignatius, which runs through April 30, is their first foray into scripted live theatre. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising that two Charlotte companies would begin with this same outrageous satire.

Sister Mary Ignatius, in full nun regalia,
Joanna Gerdy as Sister Mary Ignatius. ((Photo by Adam Cannavo/Reel Photos & Video)

“The stage is fairly simple,” Durang has said. “There should be a lectern, a potted palm, a chair to the side for Sister to sit on.” Find a nun’s habit and a couple of Nativity play costumes — could be as simple as a bathrobe, a towel, and a couple of bedsheets — and your stage director can start thinking about holding auditions.

Kevin Shimko, co-founder of CATCh alongside Abby Head, has been fitfully involved in the Charlotte theatre scene before — and with storefront theatre production. Interestingly enough, Shimko’s storefront outing at the former South End location of the Charlotte Art League was a semi-improv experience; eight actors rehearsed all seven roles in Eat the Runt, and the audience decided who would play each of the unisex roles, so none of the actors knew whether he or she would go on!

On the night we attended that performance on Camden Road, Shimko was the last actor selected, barely avoiding being left out. Among those preceding him in the casting that night were Andrea King and Jenn Grabenstetter, both of whom are on the Sister Mary team. King is in charge of lighting and sound while Grabenstetter as Diane Symonds is the bitterest of Sister Mary’s former students, playing the virgin in the Christmas play.

The CATCh location off South Boulevard, visible only when you reach their parking lot, is more clubby than quaint. Beyond the lobby space, the theater within has black-box dimensions and ambiance comparable to the performing venues at the VAPA Center on Tryon Street. So Shimko goes a little high-tech at the outset.

Instead of the simple pointer and easel that Durang envisioned Sister working with, Joanna Gerdy gets a retractable projection screen — one that opens and closes electronically via remote control — and she picks on a front-row audience member to help her extend a more business-like collapsible pointer to its full, slightly obscene length.

Shimko himself greets us in clergy robes and prepares us for Sister’s lecture. These added touches of formality and presentation polish make the childish simplicities of the first two projected slides and Sister’s remarks about them all the more surprising.

Sister Mary Ignatius, in full nun regalia, holds her arms out in service of the lord.
Joanna Gerdy as Sister Mary Ignatius. ((Photo by Adam Cannavo/Reel Photos & Video)

First slide, world: Earth, sun, and moon. Second slide, universe: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. From these simplicities, we plunge into the incomprehensible absurdity of Limbo, where unbaptized babies were sent before Vatican 2 and Pope John XXIII.

Like the Earth and moon, all that follows from Sister Mary is to be accepted as fact, not merely belief. This is Catholicism, boys, and girls, so theory and uncertainty have no place here. To underscore this point, Gerdy introduces us with twinkling pride to Thomas, Sister’s prize 7-year-old student.

With a curly head of hair you could easily mistake for a wig, Sydney Kai Qualls will not so easily be mistaken for 7, particularly when Gerdy braces herself in inviting him to sit on her lap.

A large boy in a Catholic school uniform sits on a nun's lap and she reacts accordingly.
Sydney Kai Qualls and Joanna Gerdy. (Photo by Adam Cannavo/Reel Photos & Video)

Thomas is Sister Mary’s echo chamber, acolyte and mouthpiece. He’ll bring Sister water on command and Sister will reward him with little cookies when he answers her questions correctly, as he invariably does. Correct may not adequately describe the precision of Thomas’ answers, which emerge from Qualls as three-quarters angelic, one-quarter robotic, with a bit of space given over to beaming teacher’s-pet pride.

More of this Q&A format follows as Gerdy picks up a little wicker basket that Shimko has left near the lectern with little index cards supposedly containing personal and religious questions submitted by the audience.

Gerdy’s answers have a smug cordiality to them, curt in matters of Jesus and nuns, a bit more spontaneous when asked about Sister’s family, yet somehow always rigidly doctrinaire. If she has no answer to a question, she calmly goes on to the next. If you ask her about Sodom, she will get a bit upset.

While Hird was ever-insouciant and imperious as Sister Mary, Gerdy gives her more latitude, allowing some slippage in her equipoise and then regaining it. Things will gradually change as four of Sister’s former students from her 1959 class, all adults now, come in without any introduction to perform the same Christmas pageant they performed annually when they were classmates. The pageant’s Joseph recalls that the script was written in 1948 by one of Mary’s star pupils.

It’s amazing how much of what we’ve heard earlier in Sister’s lecturing is recycled into the pageant of Jesus’ birth, crucifixion and resurrection. Just as Sister can’t remember for sure whether she actually invited these former students, we can’t be sure how Sister’s quirky pronouncements made their way into the pageant.

They could have been part of the 1948 script and approved by Sister Mary, or they could have been inserted by former students when they reviewed and rehearsed their old routine. Or maybe they just now overheard Sister’s bromides as they lurked in the shadows, waiting to appear, and decided to repeat them.

A nun places a communion wafer in a boy's mouth.
Sydney Kai Qualls and Joanna Gerdy. (Photo by Adam Cannavo/Reel Photos & Video)

Regardless of how — or when — Sister’s quirky gospel was intermixed with the traditional story, we may wonder why. Either these passages are heartfelt tributes to the ordained teacher or irreverent mockery.

After witnessing all of Gerdy’s fulsome dogma and certitude, all of Thomas’s recitations (he’s so well-trained that he can answer a handful of Sister’s index-card queries so she can take a catnap), you will likely find these outbreaks of ambiguity refreshing. Surely they are forebodings of more insane comedy or a flip to drama … or both.

When the darling little pageant wraps up, Sister begins to learn about her former students. One of 26 children herself, Mary begins with a progeny count. It’s not promising; children barely outnumber abortions.

Matthias Burrell as Gary Sullivan quickly becomes the pageant emcee, wearing a terry cloth robe to introduce the story before becoming St. Joseph. Having heard Sister’s thoughts on Sodom earlier in the evening — and likely many times before — Gary will be hesitant about explaining why he isn’t married. He has had the most benign memories of Sister Mary until now, merely scared of her.

Durang may have intended all the bygone abuse of the other three 1959 seminary grads as a comical exaggeration when he penned his 1979 satire. He certainly doesn’t insist in his 1995 intro to Sister Mary that the prevalence of abuse at Catholic schools hinted at here is simply based on fact or his own Catholic upbringing. So, a little of the sharp satiric impact that hit me when I first saw Sister in 1989 has been dulled by subsequent scandals and revelations.

Cate Jo as Philomela Rostovich and Joe Watson as Aloysius Benheim are the front and rear ends, respectively, of Misty, Joseph and Mary’s talking camel. Philomela remembers being banged around a bit, worse than Diane (the Virgin Mary) was, but we quickly sense that Sister Mary was crueler by far to Aloysius. With two children, Sister can readily forgive Aloysius’s shortcomings, which are no worse than wife-beating.

The cast of ‘Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You,’ including Jenn Grabenstetter (front and center). (Photo by Adam Cannavo/Reel Photos & Video)

Grabenstetter gets the best supporting role as Diane. After sharing the pageant narrative with Burrell, Grabenstetter draws the only truly lengthy and impactful monologue aside from Gerdy as she catalogs the torments of her life. It rather sticks out because it’s not part of the pageant script and breaks free of Sister’s ensuing interrogation. Going overboard in blaming Sister for all her life’s mishaps, Grabenstetter triggers the unpredictable denouement.

All of the absurdity and mayhem, Gerdy assures us with sacramental calmness, accords perfectly with Vatican teachings and logic, which makes it all the more delicious.

One last historical footnote: After the second successful Off-Broadway run of Sister Mary in 1982, a small St. Louis company planned to stage Durang’s play at the Mayfair Hotel in January 1983. The local chapter of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights made enough of a fuss, asserting that the play was anti-Catholic, that the St. Louis Archbishop got involved and the hotel withdrew their hospitality.

When Washington University and the University of Missouri offered to host the play, the state senate became involved, threatening funding repercussions. Two daily newspapers in St. Loo took opposite sides in the controversy. The brouhaha received national attention, including spots on CBS Sunday Morning, Phil Donohue, and Entertainment Tonight. Defunding threatened against the universities never happened. The little professional outfit that staged Sister, Theatre Project Company, felt the full financial consequences.

Learn more: Charlotte Conservatory Theatre Takes ‘POTUS’ to Cain Center

If that sounds a bit parallel to Angels in America and Charlotte Repertory Theatre, listen up. Theatre Project bit the dust in 1991, eight years after they succeeded in staging Sister Mary, just like Rep, which folded in 2003, eight years after Angels.

So belatedly, Charlotte can take a couple of bows. Between the St. Louis dust-up — followed by a string of Sister Mary controversies in Boston, Detroit, Erie, and Coral Gables — and our own Angels humiliation, George Brown and Innovative Theatre opened up Sister Mary in our Uptown without a murmur of protest. And now, Kevin Shimko and CATCh have followed suit — in fine style.

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