Princess Margaret, by Patricia Connelly, is an emotionally charged journey into the life of a poor young girl in the late 1960s. Eleven-year-old Margaret (Allison Frisch) is caught stealing milk from a small Catholic parochial school in Upstate New York in 1969. Instead of calling the police, the kindly nun Sister Anastasia (Elizabeth Bruce) suggests that Margaret be enrolled in the school. Margaret’s academic future is placed in the hands of the overbearing, headstrong, and sometimes violent Sister Helen (Taunya Ferguson).
Margaret is a smart, precocious child with a love of learning, but her difficult home life and negligent, self-centered mother Felicia (Rebecca Hausman) prevent the girl from living up to Sister Helen’s exacting and ruthless standards of obedience, order, and cleanliness. Although Margaret finds an ally in Sister Anastasia, eventually Sister Helen’s lack of compassion and abusive classroom management techniques drive Margaret away from the school.
The characters in Princess Margaret are the play’s greatest achievement; each one is rich, detailed, and compelling. The audience is instantly drawn to Margaret, whose natural curiosity leads her to spend her days reading her neighbor’s books despite her mother’s discouragement. Her fledgling desire for structure and religion should have found root at the Catholic school run by Sister Anastasia, but the circumstances of Margaret’s life get in the way.
Felicia is tough and selfish, and she too often leaves her young daughter to fend for herself and her baby brother, but she is hard to hate. Felicia is written so that just when she seems at her worst, you catch a glimpse of the love she does have for her daughter, hidden beneath the mountain of hardships Felicia steels herself against.
Sister Helen is by far the most intriguing character in the play. We first see her berating and humiliating a student for damaging a book, and later we learn that Sister Helen pushed the student with such violence that the child was taken to the hospital. However, Sister Helen is never just the caricature of a sadistic disciplinarian nun. We find that, despite her questionable techniques, students learn a great deal from Sister Helen, and the few glimpses we are given into her own abusive childhood give a suggestion of why she might be the way she is. Despite this, we are never allowed to sympathize with Sister Helen.
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 17 – October 4
at Trinidad Theatre
1358 Florida Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
Although the play begins with Sister Helen on the stage, and the first few scenes seem to suggest that it will be Sister Helen’s story we are following, her story is not the one that is followed. Sister Helen is as uncompassionate and unfeeling at the end of the play as she is at its beginning. Margaret too seems to remain stagnant: she begins the play where she ends it, stuck at home, caring for her baby brother while her mother works; perhaps the only thing that has changed is that her youthful curiosity may be gone.
Perhaps Princess Margaret is an accurate portrayal of the peculiarities of the parochial school system in the late 1960s; I do not have firsthand experience of that world, but two older audience members seemed to find a connection to the world presented on stage: they laughed in recognition at several of the more colorful religious phrases Sister Helen used to admonish her students, and, during a black out after a particularly cruel moment, I heard a whispered “I knew that nun.” But Princess Margaret is not a play about the systematic evils of the Catholic School System; Sister Anastasia is kind and preaches compassion and, although Monsignor Bryan (Andrew Walker White) does agree to overlook the poor treatment of Margaret, he does so because he believes it is in the best interest of the school.
Princess Margaret is sometimes frustrating: the major problems of the plot do not get resolved, and I was left with a desire to know more about what Margaret felt and why Sister Helen was the way she was, but it is also deeply compelling. Even after two hours, I wanted more: more of the characters, more of the plot, more of the complicated world Patricia Connelly created.
Princess Margaret by Patricia Connelly . Directed by Robert Michael Oliver . Featuring Allison Frisch, Taunya Ferguson, Rebecca Hausman and Andrew Walker White . Produced by Thelma Theatre . Reviewed by Jessica Pearson.