Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly included the name of Colin Trinity among the adult actors who play former students who come to see Sister Mary.
The horrors of Catholic school as remembered by playwright Christopher Durang in “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” are manifold, hilarious and tragic. His 1979 play is a howl against a church that he feels damaged him and others.
Director Joe Banno and his cast in the American Century Theater’s production tread the tightrope between drama and farce with mixed results. As the dreaded Sister Mary, Cam Magee, a seasoned actress with considerable classical chops, uses her mellifluous tones to great effect early on. But later, when she starts to unravel and rail at the sins of five former students, she’s too mild and, well, sane. The actors playing the students go for farce while Magee underplays. The styles don’t quite mesh.
Visually, however, the show is right on the money. Designer Steven Royal has configured the Theatre Two black-box space in Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center into a classroom so authentic, the only thing missing is that bubble-gummy smell of mimeograph ink.
The audience sits in rows of school desks facing Sister Mary’s dais, or on bleachers. All eyes turn to that dais, from where Sister Mary harangues. She steps down to stalk among her audience now and then. A blackboard fills the entire wall behind the dais, with photos of Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy, along with an image of Jesus.
It is 1979. As the bell rings, Sister Mary, in a full nun’s habit, launches into an explanation of heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo, slamming a diagram on an easel with her long wooden pointer. Thomas (Colin Trinity), a smiling boy who, we’re told, is 7, serves as her helper. He’s nicely played by Trinity as a teacher’s pet who recites the catechism for cookies, but he looks a good bit older than 7. (The playbill notes that Trinity will start 9th grade in the fall.) That observable disconnect distracts a viewer at first. It’s too early in the play to see Sister Mary as delusional.
We learn the difference between venial and mortal sins, and that murder and masturbation both fall into the latter category. Thomas reads Sister Mary’s partial list of people headed straight to hell, among them Brooke Shields, Mick Jagger and Broadway lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Around mid-play, four former students (Tiffany Garfinkle, D. Grant Cloyd, Anne Nottage and Arturo Tolentino) burst in, adults dressed as if they’re in a grade-school Christmas pageant, complete with a dreadful two-person camel outfit and a baby Jesus that looks like a Smurf doll. They remind the nun that she taught them in 1959.
They have not come to praise Sister Mary but to damn her for the emotional scars caused by her condemnatory teachings. The sister shows no remorse. One woman had an abortion following a rape — Sister Mary calls her a murderer. Another is an unwed mother — Sister Mary sees her as a slut. A man admits he’s gay — Sister Mary says he makes her and Jesus both want to vomit.
On the other hand, the alcoholic who occasionally beats his wife earns Sister Mary’s praise because he still goes to confession. Neither Sister Mary nor her former students will back down, which leads to a uniquely nutty and violent Durangian finale.
From its debut more than 30 years ago, “Sister Mary” has been a lightning rod. Productions around the country have at times been picketed for promoting anti-Catholic bigotry. But then there’s that funny, seething script.
As rendered by American Century, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” explains a whole lot and does it with brains and wit, but not enough fire.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
By Christopher Durang. Directed by Joe Banno. Scenic design, Steven Royal; lighting, Trena Weiss-Null and Nathan Wunderlich; sound, Ed Moser; costumes, Cheryl Patton Wu; props, Kevin Laughon. About 70 minutes. Presented by the American Century Theater through July 7 at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-998-4555 or visit americancentury.org.