at Curious Theatre Branch

I remember once reading a history of the City News Bureau and seeing Kurt Vonnegut and Dorothy Day mentioned as two of its alumni. The author didn’t bother to mention who Vonnegut was, but he did feel it was necessary to state that Day was the daughter of an Illinois newspaperman and the sister of another. I was flabbergasted. The daughter of a newspaperman! Dorothy Day, who has been called the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of the American Catholic Church. People want the Vatican to declare her a saint, and this guy knows her only as the daughter of one newspaperman and the sister of another.

But I suppose that’s part of her charm. Her influence reaches the halls of the Vatican and the Pentagon, but she remains largely unknown outside a small circle of anarchists, socialists, liberal Catholics, peaceniks, skid-row alcoholics, and homeless people. And she probably wouldn’t mind.

Her influence comes from a potent mix of socialist thought and Catholic doctrine that started a small but significant social revolution in the U.S. Working with a Frenchman named Peter Maurin, she created what are known as Catholic Worker houses of hospitality. These houses are based on two principles: opposing works of war and carrying out works of mercy. “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, bury the dead.”

Day practiced what she preached, and the words she preached were never easy to live by. The amazing thing, as Lisa Wagner points out in her one-woman show Haunted by God, is that “what Day believed, what she wrote, and how she lived were exactly the same.”

It’s not easy to capture the spirit of a woman nominated for sainthood, but Wagner does it with charm, wit, and tremendous faith in the power of her words. Day is fascinating because she was so human and so holy at the same time, and Wagner and her cowriters, Robert McClory and Paul Amandes, are wise enough to show both sides. They skillfully balance Day’s charms, passions, mistakes, and misgivings, making the point that people who are not perfect in a dogmatically religious sense are still capable of performing great acts of faith and love.

Wagner, McClory, and Amandes do this through a series of vignettes showing the stages in Day’s life. First we see a young Day–a cheeky socialist and suffragette with a pointed wit and a tremendous lust for life. She writes for the socialist newspaper the Call and is arrested while marching for women’s rights. She falls in love with Lionel Moise, becomes pregnant with his child, and aborts the child out of love for him. Later, in 1924, she falls in love with Forster Batterham, becoming pregnant a second time. This time she decides to have the child.

Wagner traces Day’s spiritual development through all of this, talking about how she “feels followed by a strange sense of hope and expectation . . . haunted by God,” as Dostoyevski said. She has a feeling that there “might be more to life than being angry at injustice,” and starts “to pray–just like that–precisely because I am happy.” When her daughter Tamar is born, she baptizes her in the Catholic faith and soon converts, arguing that Saint Paul could have been a card-carrying member of the IWW.

Though her faith solidifies, she feels alienated from the communists and socialists. “The communists led me to the poor, and the poor led me to you,” she prays in frustration, unable to come to grips with the differences between her religion and the communists’ social conviction. One fateful day Peter Maurin stops in for a talk, and things start sorting themselves. From that day on Maurin pesters her with his ideas about faith-based houses of hospitality, collective farms, and roundtable discussions of his utopian ideas.

She puts up with his idiosyncrasies because she believes in his ideas. They begin a newspaper called the Catholic Worker, selling it for a penny a copy on the corner. Maybe in their hearts they never thought it would happen, but they pitch the idea of opening their homes to the homeless so well that one woman asks for a place to sleep.

Feeling she has no other moral choice, Day gives the woman her place on the couch and sleeps on the floor that evening. The next morning she rents an apartment, and six homeless women move in with her. Bit by bit the house grows, and more homeless move in. More people are fed, more food arrives. Somehow the Catholic Worker movement grows.

Wagner, whose talent might come from not taking herself too seriously as an actress, gives a top-notch performance as Day. She’s skillful and well trained, easily shifting from a young, overly zealous Dorothy to a silly Peter to a crazed guest to an old and wise Dorothy. At the same time Wagner seems to be riding on a wing and a prayer–she seems to believe that if she fails, she fails. But she doesn’t fail.