Monday, August 27, 2018

Durang Double Bill: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You & The Actor's Nightmare

Harriet Harris as the titular Sister Mary Ignatius in Durang's Berkshire revival. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

When I taught Christopher Durang’s one-act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You my first year at College of the Holy Cross, more than thirty years ago, several of my students clamored, with competitive fervor, to tell anecdotes about the fearsome nuns whose reigns of terror they’d suffered through. The play, first performed in 1979, is absurdist, and the titular sister’s intolerance for anything less than the most pure, doctrinal (and bloodthirsty) vision of the universe is ultimately psychotic, but my students recognized her immediately. And indeed, even in Durang’s most outrageous work, there’s always a tinge of realism mixed in with the lunacy.

Sister Mary is as secure in her convictions and as unassailable as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; she’s like a decoy duck that refuses to go down. In the revival at Berkshire Theatre Group (double-billed, as it often is, with The Actor’s Nightmare), the supremely batty Harriet Harris plays her as a combination of a malevolent matriarch in a campy melodrama, a pensioner who’s lost her marbles but not the ability to command the attention of a large room, and Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, cackling deliriously. It’s the most inspired piece of comic acting of the Berkshire season, which is a considerable compliment at the end of a summer that included both The Closet and Seared at Williamstown.

The play is divided into three parts. In the first, Sister Mary – with her favorite choir boy, Thomas (played by Levi Hall, a child actor of indescribable ebullience), at her side, answering her periodic quizzes on catechism for cookie rewards – lectures on sin and the afterlife, injecting her own dotty, distinctly pre-Vatican II interpretations on the occasions when she feels the New Testament and prescribed Catholic readings aren’t rigid enough. This is Durang at close to his best – wildly inventive yet precisely satirical; even if you’ve seen (or read) it before, its daring makes your jaw drop. The second part is a Nativity pageant enacted by former students, and though it isn’t on the same level as Sister Mary’s monologue, it’s enjoyably silly and sustains its effect. The third part is the problematic section. It turns out that these alums have conspired to embarrass their old teacher because, for a variety of reasons, they’ve been furious at her for years. (All are in their thirties.) Three of them recall how mean she was – insulting, even in some cases gratuitously cruel. The fourth, Diane (Anna O’Donoghue), feels the nun lied to them about how the world works, so when her mother died agonizingly of cancer and she was raped by an invader on the day of the funeral, she had no resources for dealing with the shock of finding that there was no redemption. At the same time Sister Mary learns that three of these former students have been violating the Christian rules as she taught them. Diane has had two abortions; Philomena (Ariana Venturi) is promiscuous, and – most appalling, in her opinion – Gary (Tom Story) is gay. Only sad-sack Aloysius (Matt Sullivan), alcoholic and depressed and unhappily married, is still, in Sister Mary’s view, heaven-bound because he has procreated and is still a practicing Catholic.

Matt Sullivan and Ariana Venturi in The Actor's Nightmare. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

At this point the tone of the play goes haywire. It’s easy to see in the first third how angry Durang is at the Catholic Church (just as you see it in his masterpiece, The Marriage of Bette and Boo), but his anger takes unexpected imaginative forms; in the last part he’s just ranting. (The rant manages to spoil the crazy ending, which should be a triumph.) In the Berkshire Theatre Group production O’Donoghue doesn’t seem to know what to do with Diane’s speech except pace awkwardly; she’s clearly out of her depth, and the director, Matthew Penn, doesn’t help her out. But I wouldn’t know how to advise either of them to fix the scene; I once saw an actress pull off Diane’s monologue in an acting class, but in context I suspect it’s unworkable. Still, except for Story and uncanny little Levi Hall, Harris doesn’t get very strong support from the other actors. Fortunately she doesn’t appear to need it. She’s a one-woman battleship, blazing away.

The Actor’s Nightmare, which functions as a curtain raiser, is a perfect extended sketch in which the protagonist finds himself having to go on in a series of plays he’s never rehearsed, reading lines he’s never learned – in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, in Hamlet, in a Samuel Beckett mash-up that’s mostly drawn from Endgame and Happy Days, and finally in A Man for All Seasons. The set-up permits Durang to send up each of those plays or playwrights, and as he’s shown on numerous occasions (The Idiots Karamazov, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, etc.) he’s a gifted dramatic (and literary) parodist. But you need better actors than these to send the parody home. Harris is very funny – especially as Amanda in the Coward section – and Story is creditable. The other three, including Sullivan as George Spelvin, whose nightmare this is, are inadequate. George is an archetypal Durang role: earnest, befuddled, sweetly striving to carry on in impossible circumstances; the voice of the character is unmistakably that of Durang himself. Sullivan plays the character as knowing, which kills the comedy and makes it seem as if the actor thought he was smarter than the part he’s playing. I’m sure that’s not what Sullivan intended, but that’s no help. Penn really comes a cropper with this play, which should work like a charm.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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