Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Actor’s Nightmare

Nuns on chaotic power trips. Accountants held captive in live productions. Dancing camels. Executions. The Pope. 
The Bay Theatre Company delves deep into the mind of Christopher Durang in its double feature directed by Richard Pilcher: The Actor’s Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.  A strange, funny, and other-wordly excursion it is, both pieces pairing to make light of one of life’s most powerful motivators: fear.

Steve Carpenter and Valerie Leonard (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Steve Carpenter and Valerie Leonard (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Last month, I dreamed I was on American Idol.  Fabulous, I thought, though I didn’t remember auditioning, or even having an interest in a music career. Performers did complicated choreography, pausing only to play the violin at me, as I attempted to sing a solo I ultimately butchered. I even felt the shame drinking my coffee the next morning. The Actor’s Nightmare revolves around this premise, the unshakable recurring dream most actors have had in which they’ve been cast in a role for which they’re unprepared. But the show goes on.

George Spelvin (Steve Carpenter), an accountant, wanders in a dreamlike haze into a theatre ( Set Design, Ken Sheats) and is thrust into a series of distinct productions by Noël Coward, Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, Robert Bolt, which he has no knowledge or memory of. Sarah Siddons (Valerie Leonard) pushes her comedy of manners forward, Henry Irving (Paul Edward Hope) beseeches George to remember his lines, and Ellen Tarry (Alicia Sweeney) delightfully brings absurdism into the mix as the two sit in trash cans mimicking each other. (Theatre really is bizarre, isn’t it?)

Hilariously grounded by the stage manager (Rena Cherry Brown), the piece is part farce, part slapstick. Each miniature world is decorated with gorgeous costumes as multi-faceted as the plays within the play themselves (Costumes, Jackie Colestock and Christina McAlpine). Pushed from scene to scene, George begins to crack under the pressure, unsure he’ll ever wake up.


Rena Cherry Brown and Drew Sharpe (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Rena Cherry Brown and Drew Sharpe (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You follows as the second act, and is the production’s comic powerhouse. Sister Mary (Rena Cherry Brown) is a nun, a nun with big opinions and a short fuse. She begins her time with the audience addressing the cold, hard facts of Catholicism, from the parameters of Purgatory to immaculate conception. Beautifully lit photos of the Pope, Jesus Christ, and Richard Nixon line the walls (Lighting, Mariane Meadows) of the makeshift classroom.

Christopher Durang spent his childhood in Catholic school taught by nuns, and the piece is an opportunity to treat the audience as the mortified student he once was. Helen Hayes Award winner Rena Cherry Brown is uproarious as the nun off the deep end, walking the fine line required of religious satire with skill.

The lesson takes a hard left turn, though, when Sister’s students Aloysius (Steve Carpenter), Diane (Valerie Leonard), Gary (Paul Edward Hope), and Philomena (Alicia Sweeney) return to perform a revised passion play, soon revealing the real reason for the gathering. The piece opened with a disclaimer, reminding the audience that it was indeed a satire, and to remember to have fun.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You
and The Actor’s Nightmare
Closes March 17, 2013
Bay Theatre Company 
275 West St
Annapolis, MD
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $45
Thursdays thru Sundays
Sister Mary originally opened at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York in 1979 with a series of one-acts, but went on to find a successful two-and-a-half-year run paired with The Actor’s Nightmare off-Broadway. Not surprisingly, the play has endured its fair share of controversy over the years, sparking notable protests in Missouri and Boston. While arguably less shocking than the show may have been in the 1970’s, Sister Mary is wrought with issues the Senate is debating to this day.

One doesn’t need to have been an actor or a Catholic school drop-out to feel the skin prickle when Sister Mary delivers her eternal damnation, or the panic when George is deemed commander of a world that doesn’t belong to him. Whether it be the fear of the unprepared mind, or fear of the sadistic school teacher, there must be a certain relief in shining a spotlight on that fear, and it and letting it unwind.


Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Actor’s Nightmare by Christopher Durang . Directed by Richard Pilcher . Featuring Rena Cherry Brown, Steve Carpenter, Paul Edward Hope, Valerie Leonard, Alicia Sweeney, Drew Sharpe, and Parker Warren. Produced by Janet Luby and Wendy Saulters for Bay Theatre Company . Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh


Other reviews

Mary Johnson . Baltimore Sun
John Glass . DramaUrge
Danielle Angeline . MDTheatreGuide
H. N. Burdette . CapitalGazette
(uncredited ) . Bay Weekly
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts
Jackie Fishman . AskMissa





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