Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You

Also see Susan's review of Home of the Soldier

Cam Magee
Christopher Durang may have written Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You in 1979, but director Joe Banno's current production at American Century Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, shows that the play's concerns are as timely—and incendiary—as ever. The specific issues may be different now, but the current political season demonstrates how achieving coexistence between specific religious beliefs and secular life remains controversial.

Sister Mary (Cam Magee) is a product of her time: a firmly doctrinaire nun who has no uncertainty about traditional Catholic teachings, fighting the liberal changes implemented after the Ecumenical Council of 1962-63. Yes, she explains, the Vatican may have eliminated the concept of limbo, where unbaptized babies go when they die instead of heaven or purgatory, and St. Christopher might not have existed, but believers must still follow the infallible rules of the church or they will suffer eternal damnation. (Her partial list of people she knows are going there includes Roman Polanski, Brooke Shields, and the Broadway writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green.)

Sister Mary shares memories of her unhappy mother, who became emotionally unstable while trying to cope with an enormous number of children, but the nun has no doubts about imposing stringent moral laws on her young students. If anything bad happens to them, they must remember the suffering of Jesus on the cross and realize that their problems aren't so serious after all. God does answer all prayers, she says, but sometimes his answer is no. And those who commit mortal sins—"murder, sex outside of marriage, hijacking a plane, masturbation"—must make a sincere confession to a priest or they will spend eternity in Hell.

In the midst of Sister Mary's lecture, four of her former students arrive to present their old class play about the life and death of Jesus, featuring a moth-eaten camel costume and a crucifixion scene that involves a doll and a stapler. But the visitors—Gary (Grant Cloyd), Diane (Tiffany Garfinkle), Philomena (Anne Nottage) and Aloysius (Arturo Tolentino)—have their own reasons for confronting the nun.

Under Banno's direction, which begins as slightly heightened realism and eventually follows Durang's script off the rails, Magee finds the gradations in a role that could be strictly a bitter caricature. While she uses religion as a weapon and a pitiless method of control, Sister Mary finds personal comfort in her beliefs. Because she follows the rules as she sees them, she has no compassion for anyone who does not obey them.

Steven Royal's environmental scenic design places much of the audience at desks in Sister Mary's classroom, under institutional fluorescent lights as part of the lighting design by Trena Weiss-Null and Nathan Wunderlich.

American Century Theater
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You
June 8th - July 7th
By Christopher Durang
Sister Mary Ignatius: Cam Magee
Thomas: Colin Trinity
Gary Sullavan: D. Grant Cloyd
Diane Symonds: Tiffany Garfinkle
Philomena Rostovich: Anne Nottage
Aloysius Busiccio: Arturo Tolentino
Directed by Joe Banno
Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St.
Arlington, VA 22206
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Photo: Johannes Markus

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