Act Now Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

It’s the early 60s. Catholic schoolgirls wear plaid, respond to air raid drills with panicked squeals about communism, and are mercilessly browbeaten by sadistic Brides of Christ. They’re taught not to bite down on the Host at Communion (a practice compared to “biting off the leg of the Baby Jesus”), to bow their heads when Jesus’ name is spoken, and to distinguish between a venial sin and a mortal sin. But then John F. Kennedy is assassinated, it occurs to the girls that Jesus was not a Catholic, and they get their periods.

Casey Kurtti’s Catholic School Girls seems meant to be a bittersweet study of growing up under the yoke of Catholicism. It comes across as merely facile, however, trotting out all the cliches and shedding no light on their possible meanings, repercussions, or roots.

This memory play (listless monologues bracket it like tepid afterthoughts) tells the story of four girls who travel together from first to eighth grade in a Catholic school in Yonkers. Most of the nuns are monsters, a perfectly memorized catechism is preferable to honest communication with God, and First Communion is an event commemorated by the gift of a white purse with a silver dollar in it. In these children’s gleeful vision hell is a place that’s “really hot and you sweat a lot and little devils bite you all over.” The girl who in first grade smugly observed that “Jewish people can’t go to heaven–they’re going straight to hell” in eighth grade gets smacked by a nun when she points out that Jesus himself was a Jew.

The play might’ve been interesting if Kurtti had focused more on the kind of slow disillusionment that occurs when one is force-fed faith. But she just touches on the loss of faith, spending the bulk of her time on Catholic high jinks–a nun teaching her seventh-graders feminine hygiene, the girls being warned to leave enough room for the Holy Ghost between them and the boys they’re dancing with, an irrelevant talent show with the girls lip-synching Diana Ross and the Supremes, and a couple of sight gags with a tampon.

So that the girls won’t be completely interchangeable, Kurtti has given them different nationalities (insofar as Catholicism will allow), and each gets a monologue describing her own peculiar difficulties with the parochial system. These range from describing the thwarted urge to wear go-go boots like Nancy Sinatra’s to praying that all the nuns end up at an intensive-care ward in a nearby Catholic hospital.

Whatever gold director Marshall Crawford saw in this pile of dross is not revealed in the Act Now production at Cafe Voltaire. The play doesn’t seem to be about friendship–the girls are extraordinarily fickle in their allegiances to one another. It’s not about Catholicism in any serious way–it just pokes fun at an easy target, especially the faith of 30 years ago, with its lumbering and often hypocritical attitudes. From the amount of Beatles, Dylan, and Donovan played during blackouts one might assume the production was taking a stab at capturing the 60s. Why then would Crawford have undercut the Kennedy assassination by presenting it as a PA announcement by “Sister Rose Gertrude”–obviously a male voice straining into falsetto a la Monty Python?

Susan Kathleen Simpkins, Keleen Lyn McBride, Margit Louise Furseth, and Melissa Jo Pharr as the four friends and the nuns who torment them do the best they can with the material. Each actress manages a truthful moment or two, which helps us to forgive them the lisping, high-pitched voices they use for grades one through four–tones no child in her right mind would ever affect. Simpkins in particular redeems herself: we never see her “acting” when she takes her rubber-faced class clown through an honestly painful monologue about “becoming a woman,” revealing a touching bravado in her character.

Unfortunately I chose to sit on a side of the house that Crawford had chosen to largely ignore. Consequently my view of the talent show, the First Communion, the climactic monologue (in which McBride’s character takes God to task for killing her grandmother), and the semiformal dance consisted mostly of hair and plaid behinds. I’m not usually picky about bad sight lines, but these were outrageous, and in a space as small as Cafe Voltaire there’s no excuse for it. Also inexcusable, and appallingly backward in this day and age, is a remark Crawford makes in his bio, that his actresses are “pure magic . . . three out of every four weeks of the month,” a remark that’s about as funny as a nun teaching feminine hygiene.