Sister Makes the Audience Jump Through Her Hoops
By D. J. R. Bruckner
The New York Times
October 9, 1996
"All right! All right!" the nun intones sharply. "We have a lot of work to do in this class, so let’s get started. Both feet on the floor. Keep your hands out of your pockets." She means it. The audience of "Late Nite Catechism" is her adult class boning up on Roman Catholic doctrine, and she allows no nonsense. Latecomers are fined, gum-chewers get a glare and a tissue; everyone is ordered to stand when called on and to begin every response with "Sister."
Sister goes not work like post Vatican II nuns, "with their little headbands and polyester suits," she wears a full black habit. ("How would you like to lug around 20 ponds of gabardine on a hot day?" she asks) and spit-shined shoes that would so a marine proud.
The appearance is a bit deceptive. Maripat Donovan, who plays the overwhelming and vastly appealing character and who with Vicki Quade wrote this uproarious piece of interactive theater, means to remind viewers of the time before Vatican II when the nuns were the most familiar and robust symbols of authority to Catholic schoolchildren. But her character operates in today’s world and after all the laughter, leaves one not with nostalgia but with some troubling questions and reflections. Like the best stand-up comics, Ms. Donovan is willing to push her act right over the edge, even if her audience is upset by what she does.
Indeed, even while she engages in hilarious banter with the audience, bribing people to give correct answers to catechism questions with offers of glow-in-the-dark rosaries and "beautiful medals of Jackie Kennedy," she seems to take energy from any show of resistance or doubt: even the hint of a boo puts light in her eyes. And it doesn’t take long for this sister to inspire a good deal of cheekiness in the paying members of her unruly class.
Why not? Sister herself is unruly I the most important way: she has her own vivid ideas the doctrines she teaches, and she expresses them in language that is pointed and earthy but never vulgar. For all the apparent spontaneity of Ms. Donovan’s inspired exchanges with the audience, this is a well-written play.
The underground annex of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church on West 46th Street makes a perfect setting for the production, directed by Patrick Trettenero (and with a hilarious cameo appearance by George Bass as a visiting Guatemalan priest). It feels like a classroom. And the ecumenical location is appropriate; "Late Nite Catechism" speaks to an audience much broader than the membership of any one church.
Hilarious, Emotional ‘Catechism’ Is Habit Forming
By Joseph Hurley
October 23-29, 1996
What’s very probably one of the two or three funniest theatrical evenings in town slipped quietly into a church basement on West 46th Street a few days ago, with very little advance word and not much in the way of conventional publicity.
The show, rather awkwardly titled "Late Nite Catechism," is the work of longtime Chicago actress Maripat Donovan and her writing partner, Vicki Quade, with performer Donovan dominating the downstairs stage constructed for the occasion at St. Luke’s Church, just a few doors east of the familiar eateries along the street’s Restaurant Row.
So accurately observed and so inventively realized is the team’s portrait of a veteran, pre-Vatican II Roman catholic teachings sister conducting an adult education class, and so dazzlingly heartfelt is Donovan’s daringly edgy performance of the role, in what almost but not quite amounts to a one woman show, that it’s possible to forget that what’s happening on stage is a skilled actress playing a role, and not a discipline-happy nun putting a class through its paces.
When Off-Broadway gets around to giving out its awards for the season just begun, it seems inevitable that Donovan’s name will be high on the list of performers, and probably, along with Quade’s, on the writers’ roll as well.
Donovan, wearing a conventional, old fashioned habit, complete with a cascade of rosary beads stout enough to moor a tanker, strides onto the show’s elevated classroom platform and takes indisputable possession of it before she’s said a word. On the blackboard, written in chalk in a firm but in elegant hand, are the names of seven questionable saints, ranging from St. Veronica Giuliani to St. Maria Goretti, individuals whose legitimacy or lack of it, is the primary topic for the session Donovan’s nameless nun, simple called "Sister" in the program, has convened.
The sturdy sister, of course, has trouble reaching the evening’s subject matter, so easily distracted is she by the ills that famously plague the classroom: disorderliness, tardiness, unnecessary talking and gum-chewing. Sister is death on latecomers and gum-chewers and doles out suitable punishments and humiliations for each offender, with financial fines levied against late arrivals, who are also prone to chat.
On the "up" side of Sister’s behavioral docket is a ready supply of glow-in-the-dark rosaries, sanctified refrigerator magnets and even "beautiful medals of Jackie Kennedy," to be handed out to lucky individuals who come up with the right answers to the nun’s questions concerning the finer points of Roman catholic doctrine, provided, of course, that they preface their responses with the word "Sister."
Depending on the inspirational cues provided by the audience at hand at any given performance, actress Donovan may, of course, spend long, digressive stretches far afield of her text. Somehow, however, although she may pretend to lose her place, or possibly even actually does briefly derail her train of thought, Donovan always manages to pick up the thread.
The play’s main thrust is genuinely interesting, drawn as much of it is from "Lives of the Saints," tinted by Sister’s decidedly quirky and eccentric point of view. Donovan’s Sister, less disturbed than Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius, and vastly less chaotic than those girls in the various incarnations of "Nunsense," is a very genuine theatrical creation, wholly credible, and, in the play’s more serious moments, as she ponders changes in a Church she no longer fully understands, deeply and surprising moving.
The fact that amid all the unrelenting hilarity, "Lake Nite Catechism" is able to touch its audience emotionally is, without doubt, a tribute to the excellence and compassion of both the writing and the performing, and to the presence of that most necessary of all theatrical ingredients, truth.
It would be virtually impossible to know precisely how much of Donovan’s clerical circus might elude audience members unfamiliar with the Catholic Church and/or parochial education, but the impression given is that he work’s humor and its that the work’s humor and its humanity are both sufficiently broadly based to infuse "Late Nite Catechism" with a fair measure of universality.
Modest-seeming in scope and scale, and running a bit under two hours, intermission included, the show is a real achievement and Maripat Donovan, scattering the broad vowels of Chicago’s South Side like confetti over her tiny realm, is a genuine and very welcome find.