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Stage Two Theatre Company

This week’s newspapers carried reports of a speech Pope John Paul II made in Portugal warning (to quote the Reuters wire service) “that materialism still threatened Christianity.” The pope never met Wanda Gassett; if he did, he might throw in the towel.

Wanda is the heroine of Christopher Woods’s comedy Catholics in Heat. She’s an acquisitive, overaged flirt, a suburban Scarlett O’Hara who staves off desperation with a subscription to the Franklin Mint and a bottle of Southern Comfort squirreled behind Butler’s Lives of the Saints in the library. She’s been married to the same man for some 20 years–and having an affair with the parish priest for nearly as long. It’s easy to keep track of the years–the priest, Father John, is the father of her 18-year-old daughter.

That’s the premise of Woods’s anticlerical spoof of family and religious values. I say spoof because satire is too strong a word; though the script addresses such hot-button issues as abortion, adultery, suicide, and loss of faith, there’s nothing here remotely resembling keen comic analysis. Farce is the wrong word, too; it suggests far more action and coherent structure than is found in Woods’s play, which is receiving its world premiere at Stage Two Theatre in downtown Waukegan.

Catholics in Heat is a spoof–and for the first act, at least, it’s a very funny one. Wanda and Marvin Gassett are a cartoon portrait of marital mismatching: she’s a bored bitch and borderline nympho with a penchant for seducing delivery boys (“They rarely ask for a tip”), he’s a born-again bore preoccupied with his dull job in a travel agency and his activity in the local church. He wants to help his parish as much as he can–which is just fine with Father John, who loads Marvin down with more and more duties that keep the coast clear for John and Wanda.

John and Wanda’s affair has long since passed out of the torrid stage; John, no longer celibate, now finds himself impotent sexually as well as spiritually. (A leftover 60s liberal with a taste for Rod McKuen, he clings to his job for financial security–and out of fear of emotional commitment.)

Still, the relationship continues–just like that of a married couple who are closely knit despite a dull sex life. Some of the funniest business in act one stems from the reversed roles in Wanda’s relationships with the two men in her life; if her husband acts like a priest, gently nagging her about spiritual matters, her priest is like a husband–slouching into the house after a long day at work, casually doffing his cleric’s collar like a necktie, rambling on about office business (including the intimate secrets of the confessional booth), and discussing problems facing the family. In this case, those problems include the unexpected pregnancy of teenage daughter Connie–unexpected because Connie is still technically a virgin: she was inseminated by her boyfriend Tim’s sperm after she gave him a hand job in a swimming pool. Now she’s been left high and dry: Tim has become a Jesus freak who sells salvation door to door.

If this brief description makes the play sound silly, well, it is. It’s a little like those 1960s comedies with coyly sexy titles like Never Too Late, only with a sacrilegious, sick-humor bent. One running gag involves Marvin’s current fund-raising project: he peddles scabs from the body of a fifth-century martyr (presumably burned at the stake) as holy relics. Wanda, ever the gossipy, market-conscious skeptic, doubts the scabs’ authenticity: “I’ll bet they’re using cat skin and not admitting it. You know, like McDonald’s using baby seals in their fish sandwiches.”

But Catholics in Heat falls apart in act two, when Woods begins betraying his characters and subverting his structure with easy but illogical solutions. Most fatal is his decision to have Father John cook up a scheme to promote Connie’s sort-of-immaculate conception as a fake miracle; the John we’ve come to know is a weakling but not a crook, and to turn him into one undermines the audience’s trust.

If Woods rewrites his second act–and exchanges his current cop-out ending for one that really grapples with the ideas the play currently only flirts with–he’ll have a strong script. Meanwhile, Stage Two’s production, directed by Marjorie Engesser, has enough strengths to recommend it despite flaws in both the script and the staging. The best performances come from Mark Kettner as Marvin–he conveys the man’s underlying pain as well as his goody-two-shoes surface–and from Genevieve Elam and Shawn Fitzgerald, who are both engaging and idiotic as the fresh-faced ingenue couple Connie and Tim. Brad Davidson is rather vague as Father John–the vagueness and the ridiculous Irish brogue may be deliberate suggestions of John’s hypocrisy, but they make for uncertain comedy. Similarly, Jan Graves loses much of Wanda’s humor by emphasizing the character’s shallowness at the expense of her style; Wanda’s lines and abrupt changes of tone need far more crackle to be as riotously funny as they could be. Samuel Temple designed the handsome set–decorated, inevitably, with pictures of the pope, white doilies on the furniture, and a too-neat arrangement of snifter glasses by the much-used bar.