Back in the early 90s, playwright Sue Cargill built a stand-up routine around an awkward, phobic persona not too far removed from her own. “My roommate says if I really want to meet new people, I should leave my room once in a while,” went one of her signature lines. “But I think if they’re really interested, they’ll make the extra effort.”

Cargill has long since abandoned the land of setups and punch lines, but her fascination with isolation and its discontents has grown. Her characters tend to stumble through life on two left feet, stuck in soul-deadening jobs and desperately seeking communion with their fellow beings, human or otherwise. In Feeling Sorry for Roman Polanski (1995), a telemarketer and singing-telegram performer undergoes a psychic makeover after an elderly woman dies during one of his ape-suit serenades. (Cargill’s day job is in the telemarketing department of the Goodman.) In the critically well received Chameleon With Stigmata (2000), a shy, defeated food-service worker, Alice, befriends a lizard named Ned who’s obsessed with the Crucifixion. By contrast, Paramount Girl, her new work at Live Bait, seems conventional.

The play is a semifictional look at the life of Dolores Hart, a starlet of the late 50s and early 60s who appeared in two Elvis movies (Loving You and King Creole), worked with George Cukor and Anna Magnani in Wild Is the Wind, and probably achieved her greatest fame in the proto-“Girls Gone Wild” flick Where the Boys Are. For the last 40 years, however, Hart has been where the boys aren’t. She renounced Hollywood (and her fiance) in 1963, at the age of 24, and retreated to the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in rural Connecticut, where she now lives a cloistered life as Mother Dolores.

“I think I first saw Dolores Hart in the late 70s or early 80s, when they were running the Elvis movies and Where the Boys Are on my local television station,” says Cargill, a native of New Jersey. “My mom mentioned that she had left Hollywood when she was still very young to join a convent. So I always had this interest in her. I first tried writing the play in the early 90s and hit a lot of dead ends. Eventually I realized the way into the story was through Elvis and [producer] Hal Wallis.”

The play is structured cinematically, with several short, chronological scenes tracing Hart’s rise (illustrating the clear-eyed discipline and determination that would serve her well as a novice) and her growing unease with Hollywood–which is reflected through the changes she sees in her friend Elvis. On the set of King Creole (filmed about a year after Loving You) Cargill’s Hart muses, “Elvis is so different on this picture. All he does is stay in his dressing room.”

Hart addressed the evanescent nature of Hollywood friendships in a rare 2001 interview on 20/20. “You work intensely [on a film] for maybe eight to ten weeks. And then you break, and you never see the person again. It’s terrible…I think that’s one of the most anguishing parts of Hollywood.” Oddly, by entering a convent, she found the sense of community and engagement with the world that she’d missed on the outside.

In the play’s longest scene, Wallis harangues the girl he’s assiduously groomed to be the next Grace Kelly about her decision. There are echoes of Shaw’s Saint Joan, with Wallis standing in for the inquisitor–by turns sarcastic, paternal, desperate, and dismissive. Director Beau O’Reilly notes, “None of the characters in this play are cynical, with the exception of Wallis. They’re nice to each other, even when they don’t get what they want. I think [Hart’s] version of Hollywood was less cynical than ours.”

Cargill started working on the latest version of Paramount Girl in 2001, but she lost the only extant longhand draft of the script the following year in a mugging and had to start over from scratch. She wrote to Mother Dolores in the fall of 2001, as a courtesy, but never heard back. “I sent the letter during the whole anthrax scare, and she still gets thousands of fan letters every year, so I don’t know if she ever got it or if she knows about the play.”

“I’ve noticed that a lot of the plays I’ve written or worked on in recent years involve characters who are undergoing a spiritual conversion,” says O’Reilly. But when it’s suggested to Cargill that her work, even in its more absurd modes, is full of moral questions, she demurs, insisting, “I’m not really that good a person.”

Paramount Girl runs through March 7 at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark. Tickets are $20 and $25; call 773-871-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jake Herrle.