Original Chicago Production Reviews
June 11, 1993
By Maura Troester
Late Nite Catechism is the kind of title that sends an intelligent person running. "Oh, no. Not another show about Catholic nuns. Please. Whoopi was enough."
Don’t run too fast. Yes, Late Nite Catechism is a religious comedy. Yes, it features a woman dressed in a black habit. And, yes, just like Sister Mary Ignatius, she explains Catholicism to the unindocrinated. But the similarities stop there. Late Nite Catechism is refreshingly different from most plays about religion, and those differences make this one-woman show a topnotch comedy.
For starters, playwrights Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan have a deep, nostalgic respect for their subject. It’s not the blind respect of a child who’s never thought about religion. It’s a mature respect born out of diligent scholarship and a bit of reflection. The attitude seems to be encapsulated in Quade’s program bio, which says, "She grew up thinking the nuns in her school were the product of a dangerous liaison between humans and angels. Later, when four nuns picked her up while she was waiting for a late night bus, she knew they were okay."
Second, Late Nite Catechism is gloriously funny. Donovan, who plays the nun, has the natural comic genius of a class clown. She also plays a real nun, not a stereotype, not a satire of one. Her character tapes Star Trek every week and, more important, has a strong sense of humor about herself and her faith.
In less compassionate hands this play could deteriorate into a cheap slam of all things Catholic.
The scene is an adult catechism class in Chicago, 1993. Sister is filling in for Father Murphy, who doesn’t want to miss his poker night, and she’s going to teach the class the way she wants. (After all, she says, she’s been teaching religion for more than 25 years.)
Sisters has decided she’s going to tell the students stories about what it’s like to be a Catholic. She says she started teaching when it was a wonderful time to be a nun, back in the heyday of the Catholic church. She had 52 kids in her first class, she says, "who all knew they were better than the kids who went to public school." She goes on to weave stories, old jokes, and pre-Vatican II dogma into hilariously funny tapestry of Catholic culture.
At the risk of stereotyping, perhaps only an actress with a name like Maripat Donovan could do this so well. She has a distinctly Catholic sense of humor, an ability to laugh at the quirks of the church while simultaneously embracing them. (I’m not sure you need to be Catholic to enjoy this show, but Catholics will undoubtedly enjoy it more.)
This sense of humor permeates the show. Sister reads a letter to Father Murphy from Antonio Cardinal Magiaracina, requesting that his parish aid the Vatican in reviewing and rewriting the official list of more than 75,000 saints. "Some might be fictionalized," the letter states, "and need to be reviewed." Such a review actually happened, but Donovan jokes about it in typical Catholic fashion. "Times are tough," she says, shaking her head. "Churches are closing. Saints are getting laid off."
The play is structured around a list of eight saints-including Saint Christopher and Saint Mary Madgalene-that Sister reviews, giving her personal reasons for why each ought or ought not to be retained. In the meantime she digresses, like an old woman who has finally earned the right to say what she wants.
She speaks so eloquently and truthfully that when she says, "Maybe people will think more about going to church. We had everything. Now we have nothing. No more Vegas nights. No more hot-dogs days," you really think something special was lost.
June 11, 1993
Maripat Donovan delivers delighted ‘Catechism’
By Andrew Patner
Maripat Donovan’s star has been on the rise in Chicago’s storefront theater community the last few years. As Aunt Margaret in City Lit’s long-running hit "The Good Times Are Killing Me," the wacky character actress shared in a Jeff Citation for best ensemble. In 1991 she won a Jeff of her own for best supporting actress as the bible-thumping Mamma in Live Bait’s "Portrait of a Shiksa," a part written expressly for the imposing Donovan by Live Bait’s Sharon Evans.
Donovan fans can rejoice--and new fans surely will recruited--because Maripat at last has a one woman show. "Late Nite Catechism" is the new late-night entry at Live Bait. With Donovan taking the few theological and sociological misconceptions about Catholicism, the Chicago archdiocese probably will never be the same.
But "Catechism" isn’t a crazed harangue on the order of Christopher Durang’s "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" or an exercise in low camp like "Nunsense." As written by Donovan and Vicki Quade, "Catechism" has the warmth and humor of the classics 1950s Second City skits--but from the Irish Catholic side of the tracks.
In fact, "Catechism" even shares a part of the premise of one of the greatest Severn Darden-era Second City bits on a substitute teacher in a Great Books class. Instead of adult education at the University of Chicago, though, Donovan’s unnamed nun is subbing for poker-playing Father Murphy at an adult catechism course at St. Bruno’s parish, "infant swim and cardiac aerobics down the hall."
The Sister recalls the "heyday" of the 1950s, "a wonderful time to be a nun," with 52 kids in a classroom and every one paying attention. Along came Vatican II and its "hootenanny masses," an end to fish on Fridays and a world where a Holy Day of Obligation.
But the Sister’s concerns aren’t purely sacred. She also takes us through a few chapters in a big city’s development, when Catholic kids felt sorry for "publics" and Catholic parents couldn’t understand where hickeys came from if their daughters were attending parochial schools. "The Sound of Music," Latin and Loretta Young were the reigning cultural archetypes in those days of Las Vegas nights and Hot Dogs Days. "Cars were really something," and nuns wore habits and got respect.
"Catechism" is structured around a questionnaire from the Vatican newspaper about which of the possibly mythical saints should be decanonized--or as Sister would have it "some of the saints are getting laid off. Remember St. Christopher? Well he’s Mr. Christopher now."
Any non-Catholic will immediately recognize Sister’s description of what happens when they attend the mass, "they’re like aliens form space in a movie--trying to be human, but not quite getting it." And Catholic or not, you’ll know for sure what limbo is and come to appreciate Sister’s big lesson-canonized or decanonized, "You don’t get to be a saint by being stupid."
Donovan is a delight from beginning to end, her blue eyes flashing behind her regulation-issue rimless glasses. Like the best subs in school you laugh at her when she comes in and miss her when she leaves.