Warning: When attending “Late Nite Catechism,” all would be wise to refrain from chewing gum or slouching in their seats. Women, don’t even think about wearing a dress that’s cut low on top or high on the bottom. Otherwise you’ll be sure to hear about it from “Sister,” and there’s no telling what she might do with the mighty ruler she wields.
“Late Nite Catechism,” a hit since it originated in Chicago 18 years ago, opens Nov. 2 in Rochester at Nextstage at Geva Theatre Center where it will run through Nov. 27. The one-woman interactive comedy stars Colleen Moore, a New York City actress who’s a veteran in the role of “Sister.”
Along the lines of the play “Nunsense” or movie “Sister Act,” “Late Nite Catechism” gleans considerable laughs from the theme of women in habits. Yet according to Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan, the cocreators of “Late Nite Catechism,” its humor does not come at the expense of women religious.
“It’s very much a loving and respectful portrait of religious sisters,” said Donovan, who originated the role of “Sister” in stage productions and still performs it periodically.
“It’s really a love letter to them,” Quade added.
The play resurrects an adult catechism “class” from a bygone era, with “Sister” wearing a traditional habit and stern countenance. “Sister” has been known to inform her audiences that in the new catechism, it’s a mortal sin to bounce a check over $1,000. She also has noted that all nuns are born bald and without ears, joining the convent for the purpose of obtaining a habit to cover their heads. In one play excerpt that’s available on YouTube, Donovan drills her “class” as follows:
“Now, Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a day of holy obligation. When do we celebrate it?”
“Where do we have to go?”
“Where do we go if we don’t go there?”
“Pretty cut and dried, I’d say, eh?,” “Sister” concludes as the audience explodes with laughter.
“Late Nite Catechism” has garnered several theatrical awards and played nationwide as well as in Australia, England, Ireland and Canada. After having portrayed “Sister” thousands of times, Donovan said she still relishes the role, saying it remains fresh because of the audience-participation aspect: “Two-thirds of the play is improvisational interaction.”
Quade and Donovan based “Late Nite Catechism” on their own Catholic-school upbringing in Chicago. The “Late Nite” part of the title is a nod to the play’s 11 p.m. time slot when it debuted in May 1993, with a projected run of just six weeks. However, Donovan said audience and critical response was strong from the get-go, noting that “it really struck a chord with people.”
Looking back at her childhood, Quade said that the nuns’ disciplinarian style was not all that bad and thus is now easy to laugh at.
“I don’t think it killed any of us,” she remarked, adding that she now appreciates the sisters for guiding students toward excellence in the classroom and in life: “As adults you have to sort of put it into context. They gave us a good education.”
Quade and Donovan acknowledged that any effort to mix humor with church teachings is bound to make some Catholics wary. But the creators also stressed that the play has never raised hackles because it consciously avoids misrepresentation of church teachings, save for obvious exaggerations like a bounced check being a mortal sin.
“All of our theology is true and accurate. We don’t make fun of the Catholic Church, we don’t make fun of nuns,” Donovan said. “One of the best audiences was 250 Sisters of St. Agnes. It was wild. The show was almost two and a half hours long.”
“We’re not mocking religion, we’re not making a lampoon,” Quade added. She said she did considerable research while developing “Late Nite Catechism” so as to stay true to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and she and Donovan willingly adjusted the script in the early years whenever priests and religious in the audience identified portions they felt were a bit off theologically.
Backing up their claims is a 1997 review in Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago:
“‘Late Nite Catechism’ has got something so many other Catholic parodies don’t — respect for the faith,” the review stated, adding that the script “could practically get an imprimatur.”
The creators’ genuine admiration for nuns is reflected in the free-will collection that’s taken up at the end of each “Late Nite Catechism” to support retired women religious from various orders. Over the years, these collections have raised more than $2 million to cover expenses that the sisters might otherwise struggle to afford, such as handicapped-accessible bathrooms and proper funerals.
Quade said she also has encouraged the women religious to use some of the money to enjoy themselves a bit too, “even if it’s buying ice cream for a year.”Tags: Art, Religious Orders