No, it’s not a Holy Night at the Long Wharf Theatre where “Sister’s Christmas Catechism” is in session through December 20 in the theater’s Stage II. Instead, you might say it’s an evening made out of whole cloth as Sister conducts a contagiously laugh-out-loud religion class set that harkens back to virtually any Catholic adult’s most repressed memories of life under any strict and overpowering nun.
Of course nothing this sister does really resembles some of those harrowing days under a past sister’s thumb. No, this sister, in full habit of course, is here is exaggerate, satirize and lovingly recall those fateful Sunday mornings or weekday afternoons when students would obtain their weekly injection of Catholic doctrine—as only a strict, demanding and impatient nun could offer.
The play is fully called “Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold,” and it is just the latest in a full collection of Sister-centered plays created by actress-playwright Maripat Donovan that began with the Chicago and off-Broadway hit, “Late Night Catechism.” That initial play has now turned into a full industry, with productions of the Catechism plays always touring somewhere in the country with each one featuring a veteran actress who has acted in at least one or more of these productions in the past. Of course, the “Christmas Catechism” is the popular tourer at this time of year. It was written by Donovan, who played Sister in the original productions of each of the shows, with the assistance of Jane Morris and Mark Silvia, who is credited with the design and direction of the production now at the Long Wharf. This production is part of a tour of the show produced here by Entertainment Events, Inc. in New York City.
Returning in the role of Sister in this one-person show is Nonie Newton-Riley, who has previously appeared in the Christmas edition at Long Wharf about three or four years ago. She’s toured in at least seven of the eight incarnations of the Sister shows and was nominated in Detroit for a Wilde Award in the Easter Catechism production, “Will My Bunny Go To Heaven?” She’s from a large Catholic family in Chicago who is a veteran of a Catholic education, so she enjoys special insight into the role. In fact, she dedicates her performance to Sister Regina Therese, her fifth grade nun, who Newton-Riley claims whacked her frequently, and usually for a very good reason.
From her first entrance, as noted on Wednesday, December 9, Newton-Riley is the take-no-prisoners boss, catching her choir director and organist singing “Jingle Bells,” and making them change the lyrics to say, “O’er the fields we go, with Baby Jesus in the sleigh,” which she then makes the audience sing along. She reminds us of the rules of her classroom, such as no hats, which she had to tell an older priest to remove, as she did to a rather raucous man who she would pick on frequently over the course of the evening, much to the audience’s delight. There were also a late-arriving group of 20-something teachers who had been out for dinner and drinks prior to the show, who of course were subject to Sister’s disdain (much to their delight). On the night this reviewer caught the show, right in front of me was a row of fully-habited teaching nuns, who were often called on to give the correct answer to one of Sister’s questions after the rest of the audience seem stumped.
Her “good” students all received special gifts from Sister, usually in the form of Holy Cards, some quite satiric, or Candy Canes, for which Sister explains how the various red lines represent the blood and travails of Jesus. When done measuring her audience’s knowledge of religious doctrine, Sister embarks upon a reading of the Christmas Story, with back and forth questioning, that is not exactly quite like the Nativity story with which we are familiar. Although there are familiar elements, it does take on the characteristics of a fractured fairy tale.
The second act essentially resolves around Sister’s creation of a Living Nativity with members of the audience selected to play the Holy Family, shepherds, the little drummer boy, the Magi and several barnyard animals, each garbed in costumes created from tee shirts, bedding, swathes of fabric, buckets and various other household goods, as each is introduced to the audience and Sister tries to find out a little more about them. Of course, a number of the people who parried with Sister during the first act are selected to participate and there were a few surprises, including a young man who turned out to be studying to be a Capuchin friar.
Finally, once Sister has a complete cast assembled for her living pageant, she undertakes the matter suggested by the evening’s subtitle, trying to find out whatever happened to the gold that the Magi brought with them, since no accounts ever seem to mention it. After all, she suggests, once they got the gold, Mary and Joseph could have gone to a Holiday Inn and been able to take a shower. She tries to use crime solving methods she learned from the various CSI shows on television, but with the lack of physical evidence, she must rely on the techniques she learned from Sgt. Joe Friday on “Dragnet” (after sharing the plot of one of the show’s more curious Christmas episodes) to identify the culprit, which our saintly Miss Marple does.
Newton-Riley has her Sister character down pat. She can be stern when necessary yet simultaneously quick with a zinger, often aimed at an errant audience member. Newton-Riley is quick on her feet, able to ad lib a response to an audience member’s comment or situation, most of the time finding the appropriate comic nuance. She obviously enjoys playing Sister and seems especially delighted when required to make an unexpected response to one of her students, for as the show progressed we certainly did feel like one of Sister’s charges.
The stage is set up just like an elementary classroom, with a blackboard, students’ holiday style drawings, and pictures and statues of popes, saints and of course John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic President. Sister has access to plenty of props, from tape to a podium to hand cleanser, and a decorated Christmas tree surrounded what look like gift bags, but turn out to contain the costumes for her pageant.
The humor is sometimes stretched for which Sister is entirely unapologetic, but most everything scores, even when a wayward audience member playing a pig in the Nativity continues to squeal behind Sister’s back and gets a quick sweet-natured takedown from our title character. There are few double-entendres, but nothing that would redden an audience member’s ears. After all, nuns are frequent attendees at a Catechism show, as they were the night I visited. The jokes and references are somewhat dated, perhaps to make a boomer audience feel comfortable and able to relate. The good Sister does mention her frustration over listing to that Trump guy and makes another reference to him later in the show, but that is about it for current pop culture references.
After the show, Newton-Riley pays special tribute to the nuns who toil around the country and who, as they age, have no social security or pensions to count on. She takes up a collection after each show to support nun’s pensions and care after they retire, which received a positive response from the audience, who obviously had a great time during the show.
The evening is sweetly clever as the laughs keep pouring out. While it may help to have been a product of Catholic education, anyone will find something to enjoy even if they have just a brushing familiarity with the Nativity story. Plus, “Sister’s Christmas Catechism” is a perfect break from the stress and pressure of the holiday shopping and decorating, with a chance to forget your problems and giggle pleasantly at delicious nonsense on stage.
For information and tickets, call the Long Wharf Box Office at 203.787-4282 or visit the theater’s website at www.longwharf.org.