Written in 1979, Christopher Durang’s scathing commentary on aspects of strict Catholic educational dogma still has the same bite as its inaugural production; it dredges up his take on sins of the stereotypical sociopathic education imposed on unsuspecting youngsters. Large swatches of the script are alarmingly mean-spirited, but the ugliness is handled so delicately with portrayals by a refreshingly bright cast benefiting from Joe Banno’s deft touch direction that it’s almost palatable. Almost.
As Sister Mary Ignatius, excellent character actress Cam Magee infuses the Sister with strength, conviction and blasts of hot air. She starts off with such disquieting mildness that it’s almost a strain to hear her, then slowly ratchets up the volume as the intensity develops.
While walking up and down the rows of the desks—yes as in a school room—she spouts makeshift definitions of heaven, purgatory and hell, filling in her own baffling references to the scriptures throughout – Sister Mary makes it perfectly clear that as long as she knows the basics, she’s covered. She is, in fact, so rock-solid sure of her own salvation and everybody else’s hell blazing damnation—as sure as the rock on which Peter built the church–she feels that she can get away with anything. Anything.
And, that’s where some of Durang’s deranged genius hits sky high as the church steeple. The script takes a bizarre twist when former students make a surprise appearance to supposedly honor Sister’s emphatic lessons when they actually have more sinister motives.
Tiffany Garfinkle holds her own as Diane, one of the scared and scarred former pupils who discloses her descent to hellish inner turmoil. Garfinkle launches into the most philosophically drenched monologue of the play questioning the existence of God who never answered her prayer requests to ease her mother’s suffering from cancer. Why do horrible things happen to good people? Why doesn’t God’s loving hand prevent random acts of violence and mayhem?
Diane answers her own questions by denying the existence of God, which throws Sister into a cataclysmic tailspin. Needless to say, all Hell breaks loose since nothing beats the wrath of a fanatical Sister’s unshakeable faith than a brazen denial of God’s existence.
Not known for his subtlety, Durang pulls no punches and hits where it hurts with enough controversy to last well over the past thirty years. In the painful descent into the damnation of Sister Mary’s world, Arturo Tolentino as another former student has the thankless task of reliving his bladder relapse issues, while youngster Colin Trinity portrays a neophyte who responds to Sister’s beck and call reciting scripture while sporting the ever-present grin of a cult follower in the making, eager to drink the Kool-Aid if asked, with the star-power of a seasoned pro.
The production values of American Century Theatre are impeccable as always, with set by Steven Royal, complete with pictures of the nearly sainted John Paul II and J.F. Kennedy, the only Catholic President, alongside blessed J.C. himself. (Sister would undoubtedly cast me straight past purgatory into brimstone for that one.) Banno’s direction of the play within the play, the Holy Family’s early struggles to survive, brings much needed levity considering the horrific events which follow. The mood turns on a dime, and the able cast members sustain the energy and heightened pitch to the end.
Sister Ignatius is not an easy play to watch or become immersed in, since it feels more like a ranting diatribe than a steadily unfolding piece, but that is apparently by design. The first half lulls you into complacency with biblical lessons and the school-style simple skit about the Virgin Birth. Then, just when you think you’re ready for recess, the second part blasts you to smithereens that you didn’t see coming. Banno’s direction keeps a steady focus on the unfolding events, and Magee maintains an intense seething energy throughout, keeping the play’s edges razor sharp. Obviously Durang’s mission is to torpedo people out of their comfort zones and he succeeds here big time.
In this age of increasing righteous indignation, leave it to American Century Theater to mount this formidable work which can serve as a hideous reflection of extreme fundamentalism gone wild.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You
Written by Christopher Durang
Directed by Joe Banno
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes without intermission