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Just before the lights dim at the Clark Street Playhouse, a sweetly smiling nun steps timorously onto the stage. Her head is bowed, her hands clasped in prayer, and her delicate step speaks so eloquently of shyness that even patrons fully aware that Christopher Durang’s pistol-packing Sister Mary Ignatius will be a holy terror when she Explains It All for You won’t be able to help leaning forward slightly to hear her.
Sister’s first words—“In the name of the father…,” articulated in tones best suited to soccer stadiums—are clearly meant to shatter glass in Scena Theatre’s revival, but since Rena Cherry Brown’s reedy hoarseness is barely a match for the low hum of the air conditioning, the effect is that the actress is just struggling to be heard. I don’t recall whether this joke is a retread from the overrated 1988 production at Source Theatre that director Robert McNamara is ostensibly reviving, but I do know that any sensible person acquainted with Brown’s Blanche DuBois breathiness would realize instantly that she’s not vocally equipped to make it work. Give the woman a double-entendre and she’ll purr it into submission. Ask her to murmur something about always depending upon the kindness of strangers and she’ll send the lines soaring with a whisper. But who in his right mind would ask a turtledove to caw? The moment falls flatter than Sister’s starched white breastplate and proves all-too-indicative of the 70 sluggish minutes that follow.
Though no one’s likely to guess it from this production, Sister Mary Ignatius raised hackles of indignation when she first appeared on stages in 1979, bullying the patrons who attended her off-Broadway catechism classes and telling them why everyone from Linda Lovelace to Betty Comden and Adolph Green were headed straight to hell. Pre-Nunsense, and far more scabrous in its satire, Durang’s comic one-act diatribe inspired such pressure from the Catholic League for Religious and Human Rights and other groups that it became too hot for many nonprofit theaters to handle. In fact, its title had graced plenty of local preseason brochures (only to be withdrawn later) during the eight years between its New York premiere and its D.C. debut in a joint Scena/Source production that proved a good deal tamer than expected. While it ran for ages on the strength of the play’s rep and a generous notice in the Post, Sister wasn’t even the hottest Durang play of that D.C. season, playing second fiddle to a Round House Theatre production of the playwright’s milder but more complexly rewarding Baby With the Bathwater, which hogged all the attention at the Helen Hayes Awards. Sister couldn’t muster so much as a single nomination.
This time, she barely rates notice at all as she riffles through her 3-by-5 question cards, blithely explaining that a stay in purgatory will last “anywhere from 300 years to 700 billion years,” and distinguishing between sins venial (“white lies to your parents”) and mortal (“murder…and masturbation”). One question in her cards—“If God is all-powerful, why does he allow evil in the world?”—throws her briefly off stride, but she just reshuffles the cards and tackles “Do nuns go to the bathroom?” instead. Brown seems most comfortable as the gravel-voiced tyrant at such moments, when mildly distracted rather than when the character is on a wrongheaded roll. Cuddling a young student after his chirpy answers have set her to musing about the good ol’ days of church-sponsored castrati, she’s firmly in her element.
An unexpected visit by four former students from her class of ’59 proves more disruptive. One’s now an alcoholic wife-beater, another an unwed mother, yet another a homosexual—“You do the thing that makes Jesus puke,” Sister bellows at him—and the fourth, having watched her mother die a grisly death and then endured a rape and two abortions, is verging on madness. As they make it clear that they hold the nun who shaped their spiritual psyches responsible for their unhappiness, Durang’s giddy comedy takes a nasty turn toward bloodshed just in time to save it from charges of sophomoric silliness.
Unfortunately for Scena’s production, by that point McNamara’s staging has pretty much disintegrated, leaving six otherwise capable performers flailing when they ought to be bobbing along on acid waves of hilarity. Only Emily K. Townley, as the ex-student who was raped, gives Durang’s lines the comic spin they require, and even she’s a washout in the mock-religious pageant that usually serves as the evening’s high point. When a director can’t even get laughs with biblical drag and a ludicrous camel outfit, something is seriously amiss. It says something for Durang’s writing that even when its force and ferocity have been denatured by an inept production, the script can still manage to provoke a smile or two with nun sequiturs. Still, that’s hardly enough to make skipping Sister Mary Ignatius’ summer semester qualify as even a venial sin.CP