Christopher Durang


Full Length Plays

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You

 

 


photo by Charles Marinaro
Elizabeth Franz as Sister Mary
(Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Ensemble Studio Theatre Production

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You was first presented off-off Broadway by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City on a bill with one act plays by David Mamet, Marsha Norman, and Tennessee Williams on December 14, 1979.  The production was directed by Jerry Zaks, set design by Brian Martin, light design by Marie Louise-Moreto, costume design by Madeline Cohen. The cast was:

Sister Mary Ignatius  ...............................  Elizabeth Franz
Thomas  ...............................  Mark Stefan
Gary Sullavan  ...............................  Gregory Grove
Diane Symonds  ...............................  Ann McDonough
Philomena Rostovich  ...............................  Prudence Wright Holmes
Aloysius Busiccio  ...............................  Don Marino

 

This production had a limited run of three weeks. Durang won a 1980 Obie award for writing the play, and Ms. Franz won a 1980 Obie award for her performance.

 

Playwrights Horizon Production

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You was presented off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons in New York City, this time on a double bill with Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, on October 14, 1981. The production was directed by Jerry Zaks, set design by Karen Schulz, costume design by Willaim Ivey Long, lighting design by Paul Gallo, sound design by Aural Fixation, production stage manager was Esther Cohen. The cast (which doubled in The Actor’s Nightmare) was: 

Sister Mary Ignatius  ...............................  Elizabeth Franz
Thomas  ...............................  Mark Stefan
Gary Sullavan  ...............................  Timothy Landfield
Diane Symonds  ...............................  Polly  Draper
Philomena Rostovich  ...............................  Mary Catherine Wright
Aloysius Busiccio  ...............................  Jeff Brooks

The Playwrights Horizons production subsequently moved with the same cast to an open off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts Theatre, where it played until January 29, 1984.  During this run of Actor’s and Sister Mary, many actors took over the roles. 

The role of Sister Mary was later played by Nancy Marchand, Mary Louise Wilson, Kathleen Chalfont, Lynn Redgrave, Patricia Gage. 

Thomas was played by Guy-Paris Thompson, Evan Sandman, Damon Dukakis, Vaughan Sandman, Timmy Geissler. 
Gary was played by Jeffrey Hayenga, Mark Herrier, Kevin O’Rourke.   Diane was played by Carolyn Mignini, Brenda Currin, Madi Weland.  Philomena was played by Deborah Rush, Alice Playten, Cynthia Darlow, Winnie Holzman, Angee Cockcroft.   Aloysius was played by Christopher Durang, Brian Keeler, John Short.

There were also many productions of Sister Mary Ignatius around the country.  Notable ones were in Los Angeles starring
Elizabeth Huddle as Sister, later taken over by Lynn Redgrave and Valerie Curtin.  In San Francisco, Lynn Redgrave again played Sister, taken over by Cloris Leachman, then Peggy Cass.  In Boston, Elizabeth Franz recreated her role, taken over by Kathleen Chalfont

photo by Susan Cook
Elizabeth Franz as Sister Mary
(Playwrights Horizon)


Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You is actually a long one act, but it is sometimes performed by itself, which is why it is being included in the Full Length Play section.  Also, it was more than usually significant in Durang’s career and “feels” full length in its impact.  Durang was raised as a Catholic, and went to Catholic schools for grammar school and high school.  And he wrote this satiric play, looking back somewhat amazed at the complexity of the dogma he was taught as a child. 

Sister Mary was on the 10 best lists of the New York Times, the New York Post, and Time Magazine, and received almost universally glowing reviews. 

Only a writer of real talent can write an angry play that remains funny and controlled even in its most savage moments. "Sister Mary Ignatius" confirms that Christopher Durang is just such a writer. [His] most consistently clever and deeply felt work yet. It has the sting of a revenge drama, even as it rides waves of demonic laughter. Ms. Franz is brilliant. After her real – and insane – personality is revealed, she still remains all too frighteningly human.
     -  Frank Rich, The New York Times.

Durang is one of the most ferociously funny young American dramatists, and Sister Mary is his most ferociously funny work.  The object of his lacerating laughter is the Roman Catholic Church as educator. …the figure of Sister Mary accumulates a terrifying comic power as her moral certainty reaches a climax of insanely logical violence.  Jerry Zaks’s direction gives color and nuance to the play, and Elizabeth Franz’s performance is nothing short of devastating.  The classic treatment of this theme is Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where despite his resisting of Jesuit hellfire pedagogy young Stephen Dedalus is accused by a friend of being “supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.”  What gives Durang’s play its ultimate kick is the sense that Sister Mary’s belief is stronger in its visionary mania than the ravaged rationalisms that oppose it.
     - Jack Kroll, Newsweek

Christopher Durang’s "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You" is a hysterically funny, bitter, anguished, out-of-control moral comedy that stands as a rebuke to all “bad taste humor” which refuses to acknowledge the implications of its attacks.  Durang reveals himself to be as angry as Lenny Bruce and nearly as incisive: he has, for the first time, dared to let the laughs drop for part of his play in order to make his audience squirm.  It is one of those grand moments when an unbridled talent finally shows what he is capable of doing. …If the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s second round of Invitational short plays had done nothing more than bring this extraordinary work to life, it would be justification enough.
     - Terry Curtis Fox, Village Voice (on Ensemble Studio Theatre production)

There is a manic imagination possessed by Christopher Durang that makes him the jolliest maverick of the younger American playwrights. …[Sister Mary] struck me as the best piece of Durang’s writing I’ve seen to date…  The acting throughout is fine – I was particularly taken by Jeff Brooks as the beleagured and confounded Hamlet [in the curtain raiser The Actor’s Nightmare], Elizabeth Franz was marvelous as the acid-souled Sister Mary Ignatius, and an ingratiating child actor, Mark Stefan, as Sister Mary’s youthful myrmidon.  The plays…are a joy and deserve to become a hit of the season.
     - Clive Barnes, New York Post
       [note: “myrmidon” means “an unquestioning follower”]

 

The Story:

Sister Mary Ignatius is giving a lecture. She points to drawings of the earth, moon and sun. Then she points to drawings of heaven, hell and purgatory. And also Limbo, where unbaptized babies are sent. She explains, sometimes with impatience, about the Immaculate Conception (“which is NOT to be confused with the virgin birth!”); she tells us what sins send you to hell (“murder, sex outside marriage, highjacking a plane, masturbation”); and she is assisted by her sweet and obedient student, Thomas, age seven. On cue Thomas recites answers to catechism questions and is rewarded with cookies. Sister also takes questions from the audience (“Why is St. Christopher no longer a saint, and did anyone listen to the prayers I prayed to him before they decided he didn’t exist?”), and tells disturbing and mysterious stories of her family background. 

Her lecture is interrupted midway by four ex-students of hers, who have come to put on a beloved Christmas pageant, written by Sister’s favorite student who joined a cloistered nunnery. The pageant is clearly the work of an innocent child’s brain, but sounds slightly off with adults presenting it. And afterward, as Sister chats with her unexpected visitors, her attitude darkens and darkens as she realizes all of these students have fallen away from the church’s teachings – one is an unwed mother, one is gay, one has had abortions. 

The play darkens as the true motive of one of the ex-students becomes clear. And it is only after attempted murder, self-defense, and an additional murder (for “good reasons”) that Sister is able to continue on with her lecture.



photo by Susan Cook

photo by Charles Marinaro

photo by Charles Marinaro
Timothy Landfield, Polly Draper
(Playwrights Horizons)

 Mark Stefan, Elizabeth Franz
(Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Gregory Grove, Ann McDonough
(Ensemble Studio Theatre)

 

In the 1980s this was one of Durang’s most popular plays. The truth of this play is very much tied to the time in which it was written. Though much of the Catholic Church’s dogma (especially as regards sexuality) has remained the same, the manner of teaching in Catholic schools has changed, as well as its monolithic nature. The teaching and dogma that the play satirizes was true in the 1950s and 1960s and part of the 1970s, but changed after that.  Plus some of Sister Mary Ignatius’ character is based on her irritation at the liberal Ecumenical Council and how it had changed the Church she grew up in.  She thus needs to be placed in time so that she would have been a nun for a fairly long time throughout the 1950s (and even late 40s?) so that she could have grown to love the old-fashioned, stricter Church that the Ecumenical Council challenged and tried to change.


For this reason, it is recommended that you present the play set back in time in the early 1980s. (This means that the ex-students would have been Sister’s students back in the late 50s or early 60s.)  Click here to read Essay on Updating.

 

First Row Center, 1956:

The author's First Communion,
Our Lady of Peace School,
New Providence, New Jersey

 


Cast: 3 male, 3 female, 6 total.
Rights: Dramatists Play Service

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