Live Bait Theater

Late Nite Catechism: Saints, Sisters and Ejaculations is the kind of title that sends an intelligent person running. “Oh, no. Not another show about Catholic nuns. Please. Whoopi was enough.”

Don’t run too fast. Yes, Late Nite Catechism is a religious comedy. Yes, it features a woman dressed in a black habit. And, yes, just like Sister Mary Ignatius, she explains Catholicism to the unindoctrinated. But the similarities stop there. Late Nite Catechism is refreshingly different from most plays about religion, and those differences make this one-woman show a top-notch comedy.

For starters, playwrights Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan have a deep, nostalgic respect for their subject. It’s not the blind respect of a child who’s never thought about religion. It’s a mature respect born out of diligent scholarship and a bit of reflection. The attitude seems to be encapsulated in Quade’s program bio, which says, “She grew up thinking the nuns in her school were the product of a dangerous liaison between humans and angels. Later, when four nuns picked her up while she was waiting for a late night bus, she knew they were okay.”

Second, Late Nite Catechism is gloriously funny. Donovan, who plays the nun, has the natural comic genius of a class clown. She also plays a real nun, not a stereotype, not a satire of one. Her character tapes Star Trek every week and, more important, has a strong sense of humor about herself and her faith.

In less compassionate hands this play could deteriorate into a cheap slam of all things Catholic. But under the direction of Nancy Burkholder, Donovan spins a tender eulogy for the culture of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

The scene is an adult catechism class in Chicago, 1993. Sister is filling in for Father Murphy, who doesn’t want to miss his poker night, and she’s going to teach the class the way she wants. (After all, she says, she’s been teaching religion for more than 25 years.)

Sister has decided she’s going to tell the students stories about what it’s like to be a Catholic. She says she started teaching when it was a wonderful time to be a nun, back in the heyday of the Catholic church. She had 52 kids in her first class, she says, “who all knew they were better than the kids who went to public school.” She goes on to weave stories, old jokes, and pre-Vatican II dogma into a hilariously funny tapestry of Catholic culture.

At the risk of stereotyping, perhaps only an actress with a name like Maripat Donovan could do this so well. She has a distinctively Catholic sense of humor, an ability to laugh at the quirks of the church while simultaneously embracing them. (I’m not sure you need to be Catholic to enjoy this show, but Catholics will undoubtedly enjoy it more.)

This sense of humor permeates the show. Sister reads a letter to Father Murphy from Antonio Cardinal Magiaracina, requesting that his parish aid the Vatican in reviewing and rewriting the official list of more than 75,000 saints. “Some might be fictionalized,” the letter states, “and need to be reviewed.” Such a review actually happened, but Donovan jokes about it in typical Catholic fashion. “Times are tough,” she says, shaking her head. “Churches are closing. Saints are getting laid off.”

The play is structured around a list of eight saints–including Saint Christopher and Saint Mary Magdalene–that Sister reviews, giving her personal reasons for why each ought or ought not to be retained. In the meantime she digresses, like an old woman who has finally earned the right to say what she wants.

She speaks so eloquently and truthfully that when she says, “Maybe people will think more about going to church. We had everything. Now we have nothing. No more Vegas nights. No more hot-dog days,” you really think something special was lost.