Lookingglass Theatre Company

at Chicago Filmmakers

By Maura Troester

It’s impossible to say how many young Catholic girls seriously considered marrying God when they grew up. I know I did, and I think my cousin did too.

I gave up the notion around the time I entered high school, and I’m pretty sure my cousin did the same. But in the 14th century Saint Catherine of Siena, at about the same age, announced to her family that she hadn’t “the slightest intention of marrying a mortal man,” and according to her confessor Raymond of Capua, spiritually married God several years later. Saint Therese of Lisieux also married God, around the year 1880 in her own little private ceremony on top of a mountain in France.

Strange notion, that women can marry God and become saints. Men have often dedicated their lives to God and become saints, but the word “marry” rarely comes into play. After seeing Lookingglass Theatre’s All Souls Day: The Life of St. Catherine of Siena as Confessed to Raymond of Capua With an Epiphany by St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, I really began to wonder about this difference. All Souls Day, written and directed by Joy Gregory, chronicles Saint Catherine’s spiritual journey toward God: her wild holy visions, penitence, determination, and powerful passion. It also touches on the simple faith of Saint Therese, “the Little Flower,” who in many ways is Saint Catherine’s spiritual antithesis. These two women actually believed that they were married to God. And that marriage was one fiery road of suffering and holy joy.

What I wonder is–was it worth it? What is a saint anyway? All Souls Day candidly explores the spiritual aspects of these women’s lives, never judging them, and it’s refreshing to see a play so free of didacticism. But at the same time, I never discovered how Gregory feels about these women, and we aren’t given much information to make our own judgment. For example, Gregory never mentions that Catherine of Siena was instrumental in bringing the papacy back to Rome from Avignon in the late 14th century, nor is there any mention that the writings of Saint Therese were often read by French generals and soldiers during World War I as a source of courage. Without any historical context, these women seem not much more than God’s dedicated wives.

History aside, Lookingglass does a superb job of conjuring up the spirituality of these two powerful saints, creating a spellbinding atmosphere from the very first moment the lights fade to black and the company processes through the house carrying candles and singing a cappella psalms (compiled by Laura Eason). They walk to the stage in virtual darkness, carrying “the Guest” (played by Eason this evening), and place her gently on the ground. She seems sick, too weak to move much farther. Dressed in a thick tweed skirt and sensible shoes, she’s set apart from the men, who wear white button-down shirts, faded black pants, and black suspenders, and from the other women, who wear simple white dresses–the underclothes for the more significant garb they’ll don later.

Lookingglass works in the experimental style of the 60s, changing characters by changing a hat, deftly incorporating dance, dialogue, and narration to tell its stories. Thirty years later this style no longer shocks with its unconventionality–it seems instead a happily fitting device to tell two true if somewhat bizarre stories. Catherine of Siena’s tale is narrated by her confessor, Raymond of Capua (Philip R. Smith), in a sort of grade-school catechism language. Raymond tells, for instance, how Catherine’s mother, “a fruitful vine in the house of her husband,” gave birth to many children, including several sets of twins, and the company act out this story, passing imaginary babies from one to the other.

Other scenes are dramatized. At the age of six, while walking through the countryside with her brother, Catherine has her first ecstatic vision. “Catherine,” the voices whisper. “Yes?” Catherine whispers back. “Can you hear me?” the voices ask. “Yes,” she whispers fervently. “Are you coming?” “Yes!” Catherine responds. “Are you afraid?” “No!” she answers, and suddenly she seems transformed into someone much older than six. This short conversation expresses a certain sensuality, a certain anticipation that borders on sexuality. Yet Catherine quietly makes a vow of virginity: slowly pronouncing the words “You take I,” she opens her knees, stretches out her arms, and lies down on her back. She sits up and repeats the process. All the women in the company mimic her movement, repeating the words “You take I” as if mesmerized. It’s a very sexual movement, yet it never seems odd that God might be seducing a young girl.

Later Catherine’s sweet seduction is replaced by what is known as mortification. We are told she beat herself three times a day with a metal chain–once for herself, once for the living, and once for the dead. Think about this. Up until the time of Saint Therese of Lisieux, mortification was considered one of the best means of attaining religious “perfection.” If anybody did this today they’d be labeled a masochist and placed under constant supervision. How is it that one society’s saint is another’s masochist?

Gregory makes some attempt to answer these questions with the short “epiphany” based on the autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Story of a Soul.” If Catherine is the saint of blood and passion, Therese is the saint of love, love, love–much more fitting for a girl born in late-19th-century France. Still, when she speaks placidly from her wheelchair in the center of the stage, that love seems bizarre indeed. Whenever she’s overcome with love for her widowed father, for example, she wishes he were dead so he could experience heaven. Simple Therese peppers the narration of her life with sayings like “I am too small to climb the stairs to heaven so I have to take a lift instead.” In the context of the prevailing belief that spiritual perfection was attained through huge acts of self-denial and self-abuse, this simple statement was a revolution in itself. But Gregory doesn’t give us the context.

Shirley Anderson does a fine job with this seemingly simpy character, capturing Therese’s twisted wisdom and making her seem eerie and radiant with joy at the same time. Christine Dunford and Kathy Randels do equally well at revealing the iron-willed devotion of the older and younger Saint Catherines.

At the very end, “the Guest” reappears. Her costume indicates that she’s not one of the actors, yet her clothes are too dated to make her a member of the audience. Who is she? What happened to her? She was sick at the beginning of the show and she still seems weak. “There are already things I can’t remember,” she announces. “That’s perfectly normal,” is the response. “You can go now. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” She puts her shoes back on, takes her purse, and climbs the ladder to the blue firmament above the stage as scraps of paper flutter down around her. It’s a beautiful but unmeaning image–there are too many questions surrounding her identity.

All Souls Day seems polished but unfinished, if such a thing is possible. Lookingglass, a tight ensemble, has a lot of technical savvy and makes each moment visually and emotionally captivating, but somehow the moments don’t add up to all they can be. All Souls Day seems not much more than a sophisticated retelling of the same stories Sister Thomas Estelle told me in first grade. Gregory’s only director’s note is “This really happened.” That’s what they said in first grade too.