Sister Knows Best
On Saturday, May 31, I went down to the Crossroads Theater in Naperville to see the interactive play A Late-Night Catechism, which had come highly recommended by my parents, who saw it in Chicago a couple years ago. The play was created and written in 1993 by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan, who based it on their experiences growing up Catholic in Chicago. The entire audience is Sister’s class, an adult catechism class, set in a Catholic grade school. Before the show begins, some background music is piped into the room, including “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and some traditional choir hymnals.
The set looks just like one might imagine an old-fashioned Catholic classroom to look like. There's a teacher’s desk, with a plastic apple on it, as well as two plastic figurines: Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The room also includes some “know-your-ABCs” charts and those pin-up banners for practicing one's cursive letters. Written on the blackboard are the names of various saints. To the right is the lectern that Sister will occasionally use to address the students. A small, old-fashioned globe completes the look. To the left of the desk, there exists the remains of an uncomfortable old wooden chair that students used to sit in. The back of the chair is splintered and is “fixed up” by some broken rulers; more of these are found adorning the legs of the chair.
After a few moments, Sister walks in—played by Lisa Braatz this time—dressed in full nun habit. She calls the class to order and begins with an amusing “welcome, students, I know none of you want to be in class but too bad” spiel.
The class is central to the play; in fact, the play revolves around it. There’s frequent interaction between Sister and students, so most of the play is off-the-cuff. For example, when two people snuck in a few moments late, their tardiness didn’t go quite as unnoticed as they thought. Sister came over, chided the husband, and promptly insisted on a dollar. She said the money would go toward the Catholic school’s fund to buy a pagan child from Africa. When the man tried to make an excuse for himself, Sister wouldn’t have any of it. Clearly, getting Sister’s proverbial feathers ruffled is not a smart move.
Later on, the class was asked to answer questions Sister posed to us, including, “What was the Immaculate Conception?” I wasn’t brought up Catholic, but I knew the answer, so I volunteered to answer the question. I got it right, thus earning Sister’s respect—and, equally importantly, a one-inch, glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary statuette. Sister remarked that the incorrect answer most people give, “the birth of the baby Jesus,” was what she likes to call the “Immaculate Misconception.”
Others, however, were not so fortunate when asked a question, and their answers were quickly shot down. But getting questions wrong isn’t the cardinal sin of the hour—talking out-of-turn is. Everyone loves watching some poor sap getting himself into hot water as Sister rebukes the disgraceful behavior.
Sister takes everyone back to the days of the Latin Mass and no-meat Fridays, giving people a reminder of the ruler-across-the-knuckles childhood. Though significant parts of the play are impromptu, the parts that are rehearsed are also brilliant. The teacher takes all sorts of stories and puts her own unique twist on them, combining factual history with outrageous half-truths and comical interpretations of events.
As much fun as it would be to talk about all the one-liners in the play and all the quirks that made Sister such a dynamic character, there isn’t enough room. I will say this, however: Lisa fills the role to the “T.” She has the perfect combination of traits, behaviors and characteristics that epitomize nuns. The no-nonsense, strict Catholic schoolteacher persona is there, especially when it comes to not knowing answers and breaking rules, but even then, it’s not really what Sister’s personality is. The underlying facet of her character is one of tolerance; in one breath Sister verbally reprimands her students for a wrongdoing, but she comes across as forgiving and downright funny. Sister doesn’t scowl much and is quick to crack a smile. Some amusing stories from the students, including one man’s memory of why he got cracked over the head with a ruler, evoked quite a laugh from Sister. And she seemed amused by even her own stories at points, as though she—a teacher—believed them, yet still found humor in them and enjoyed imparting them to the class.
As far as acting goes, Lisa/Sister is always on her feet when it comes to her impromptu interactions. She doesn’t miss a beat and has a reply for even the most unpredictable comments. During question-and-answer time, one man asked if nuns wear the habit to bed; Sister's immediate reply was that she has a pink floral-print habit for use as an evening gown. Lisa always remained in character, never acting either too tough or too silly. Quite the expressive person, she gestured a lot and made her character a very animated one. In fact, she brought the same zest and humor to her role as Kathy Najimy did in “Sister Act” where she played Sister Mary Patrick.
There is nothing I would improve about this performance or the play as a whole; it’s satirical but not offensive, and Catholics and non-Catholics alike get a kick out of it. The little touches—the plastic Mary, the background hymnals, the teacher’s apple, the broken-ruler chair—add personality and dimension to the atmosphere. The lighting is used effectively, sometimes pouring down on Sister from above as if light from heaven were giving her a makeshift halo. The scripted parts and the ad-libbed parts are flawlessly executed, and the rest of the audience, as the class, adds to both the realism and the fun.
Right at the end, Sister told us she was going home because she was “taping Fear Factor” and wanted to see “what gross stuff they’re making them eat tonight.” Nuns are often the victims of stereotype, being written off as humorless and uptight, but this play seems a better interpretation. Just keep your feet on the floor, don’t interrupt and don’t think you’re going to outsmart the teacher. After all, you know what they say: “Sister knows best.”