Christopher Durang's "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You," which was written in 1980, is a scathing reflection of the negative experiences Durang had in parochial schools from 1956 to 1967. Since so much has changed in the Catholic Church since then, you might expect the play to sound dated or irrelevant.
But in the production of "Sister Mary" currently playing at the American Century Theater, tightly directed by Joe Banno, the social satire is as fresh and up-to-the-minute as though the play had been written yesterday. And while Durang's primary target was the Catholic Church, he was really referencing many of America's social problems and the nation's hypocrisy about those issues, many of which still exist.
"Sister Mary" tells the story of an aging teacher (Cam Magee) at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows School. Her address to an assembly allows her to voice all her personal, hidebound views about everything from heaven to hell to the sinners damned to the latter place: Roman Polanski, David Bowie, Zsa Zsa Gabor, among others. Magee is excellent in the role. At the beginning of the play, she is icily calm, though her insistence on control grows throughout the play. As she discusses the "physical torments" of hell, a ghost of a smile plays over her lips.
|'Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You'|
|Where: American Century Theater, Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington|
|When: Through July 7|
|Info: $27 to $35; 703-998-4555; americancentury.org|
Sister Mary is accompanied by a seven-year-old student, Thomas. Colin Trinity plays Thomas very effectively. He brings Sister Mary glasses of water and chocolates and receives cookies from her when he answers her questions correctly. He obligingly sits on her lap when Sister Mary needs physical comfort.
Approximately half way through the play, some of Sister Mary's grown, former students appear to confront her. They reveal how badly they suffered at her hands and how her manner of teaching damaged them deeply. One, Aloysius (Arturo Tolentino), is an alcoholic who beats his wife. Philomena (Anne Nottage) is the unwed mother of two children. Diane (Tiffany Garfinkle) had two abortions. Gary (Grant Cloyd) is a homosexual.
Sister Mary is scandalized and castigates the young people, threatening them with eternal damnation for their unforgivable sins. The play spins increasingly out of control until it takes on the dimensions of a truly black, absurdist comedy.
Steven Royal's brilliant set turns the theater into a classroom: a blackboard spans the whole front wall; desks are arranged throughout the theater for audience members.
Certainly, the world has changed considerably since 1980, as has the Catholic Church. But a glance at the headlines in almost any newspaper on any given day will suggest that the issues -- control, bigotry, hypocrisy, absolutism -- that bothered Durang when he wrote "Sister Mary" are still in play today, making his words worth hearing again.