Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It Call For You and The Actor's Nightmare, by Christopher Durang. Directed by Matthew Penn. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Matt Sullivan, Anna O'Donoghue, Harriet Harris, Ariana Venturi, Tom Story; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
"As a child, I was taught by nuns, and then in high school I was taught by Benedictine priests. I really rather liked the nuns. They were sort of warm, though they were fairly crazy too. Line."
Matt Sullivan, Tom Story; photo: Emma Rothernberg-Ware
In Christopher Durang's play "The Actor's Nightmare" - one of two plays by Durang now on stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge - a man named George Spelvin realizes quickly that he is caught in a situation that is not only uncomfortable it is impossible. He is an accountant caught onstage in a theater he doesn't recognize about to go on in a play he doesn't know and hasn't rehearsed. He is replacing America's foremost actor of the late 19th century, Edwin Booth, and he is acting opposite Sarah Siddons, Dame Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving. And the stage manager is no help. This is the actors' nightmare, all actors.
Durang's cleverness and his theater knowledge collide midway through the play with his Catholic background and Spelvin's lines, combining Shakespeare, Noel Coward, Robert Bolt, the Bible and Beckett, leads to an epiphany and it all ends badly for Spelvin. One of Durang's brightest comedies, this play is usually done in conjunction with a much longer one-act, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You," as it is here. The combination is desirable because of the setup lines in "...Nightmare" that key in the more famous play about a nun and her former students.Either play can stand alone, but the combination points up the humor in the second play to a much greater extent.
Under the fine direction of Matthew Penn, Matt Sullivan shines as Spelvin. His dissipating composure plays out in his Hamlet costume and his responses to the other actors who keep throwing him cues, but never his next line, is hilarious. Particularly good at the confusing line readings is Harriet Harris whose vocal tone, so insistent and consistent in its implication that Spelvin knows the next line, gets as many laughs as the lines themselves. She is particularly brilliant as Amanda in "Private Lives" asking again and again "How was China?" which is not the funniest line Noel Coward ever wrote, but here, in her hands with the constantly increasing fury that Penn has coached from her, the line becomes an absolute treasure.
Tom Story is delightful as Irving playing Shakespeare's Horatio and later Bolt's Executioner. Ariana Ventura is the funniest Ellen Terry and Anna O'Donoghue brings the stage manager into brilliant life with each and every entrance, with or without script in hand to aid Spelvin. As the play becomes more and more manic, in the way that dreams often do, the relevance of the main character's name becomes more and more obvious. George Spelvin is the name Actors Equity provides for the anonymous walk-on in a professional setting. Rarely has a G.S. ever been asked to assume an important, not to say Leading, role but in this nightmare that is exactly what has occurred. That fact alone triggers the finale of the second play on the bill, "Sister Mary Ignatius, etc."
Harriet Harris as Sister Mary Ignatius; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Harris takes the lead in "Sister Mary Ignatius. . ." and begins as the most benign, sweet-aspected human being imagineable. She is the dream-nun, the caring instructor, the devoted religious soul who may be a bit too devoted to her calling. By the end of the play, however, she has transformed into the maniacal nun of horror movies who imposes her will by whatever means possible in order to make her points about devotion, God, and dogma. Watching Harris transition from one interpretation to the other is a lesson in comic acting. She is brilliant and lighting designer Alan C. Edwards has managed to maintain a glow about her at all times.
With her favorite seven year old student at her side, Levi Hall as Thomas, she lectures to all of us assembled in the hall, on the Bible, heaven, purgatory, and hell, and related topics until four former students arrive to present a pageant about the birth of Jesus.
It is the section that follows their playlet that brings the entire evening together emotionally. They are all disguntled adults who feel they were betrayed by the nun. Aloysius Benheim, ignored by her to the point of humiliation is played by Sullivan, whose earlier starring role as the eponymous Spelvin in the nightmare play that ends so badly ends critically badly in this play as well, the former dream almost a portent of what has transpired in the second play.
Anna O'Donoghue as Diane Symonds has a wonderful speech about her own problems in a Catholic world and she nearly stops the show. Tom Story, with subtle mannerisms and voice patterns, proves the tragic figure among the graduates and he does so quite brilliantly, As the girl with no self-respect to speak of Ariana Venturi makes Philomena Rostovitch into a memorable character, a woman who has little hope of survival in this world.
Director Matthew Penn has delivered wonderfully this package of promiscuous thoughts and attitudes that redefine the term tragi-comedy. Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes, particularly in the first play, are brilliant realizations of character's playing characters. Alan C. Edwards' sets are excellent and the fight choreography by Eric Hill is wonderful, both precise and ridiculously funny at the same time.
I have never really liked the way Sister Mary transforms. However, I have always had a modest fear of nuns, so I do enjoy seeing the way Durang exposes my own "nightmare" about them; it just makes me uncomfortable having my personal fears confirmed on a stage. This production, featuring so much talent, is about the best it can be in a world where our expectations of people in power is so often betrayed these days. It's a play about our times. AMEN.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Actor's Nightmare plays at the Unicorn Theater on Berkshire Theatre Group's Stockbridge location, 6 East Street, Stockbridge, MA through August 31. For information and tickets go to their website, BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or call the box office at 413-997-4444.