Catholic School Girls
at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church
Whether it was a collective epiphany or something in the water, 1982 brought a higher-than-average offering of nun-centric theatrical exploration, from Jonathan Pielmeier’s dark, distressing Agnes of God to John R. Powers’s musical frolic Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? Casey Kurtti’s Catholic School Girls also dates from that year. She starts out very Powers-like, introducing the four girls we’ll follow from first through eighth grade at St. George’s School in 1960s Yonkers. But where Powers (and lyricists James Quinn and Alaric Jans) slough off the nuns’ strictness with wisecracking songs (“If you miss a Sunday mass / Or talk back with any sass / Who will really kick your ass? / It’s the nuns!”), Kurtti reveals the deep wounds such discipline inflicts on fragile little egos and the genuine confusion of sorting out both one’s coming-of-age and a relationship with God in the midst of eerie rituals and unbending rules. Adult Catholics in the audience may well hear echoes of their own unresolved childhood questions, disillusionments, and hopes.
Four actors each play a schoolgirl and a nun, but the emphasis is on the girls. Tomboy Colleen (Lacy Coil) plays basketball and sneaks dirty magazines into class but is terrified at the thought of becoming a woman. Elizabeth (Dina Connolly), whose memories frame the play, lives in a fantasy world with an imaginary friend, keeps up a direct correspondence with God, and idolizes a grandmother who makes her feel special while the rest of the family keep their distance. Maria Theresa (Jennifer Grace) comes from a large, loud Italian household where the kids, all named after saints, sleep in rows of bunk beds and the dining room table occasionally gets slammed into the wall. Teacher’s pet and only child Wanda (Samantha Kozloff), daughter of a Polish butcher who donates prime cuts for the convent’s Sabbath dinners, dreams of stardom, appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and marrying Paul McCartney.
Like the kids from Powers’s south-side Chicago neighborhood, these girls’ superstitions keep them walking what they think is a tightrope between heaven and hell. Biting a communion host is akin to holy cannibalism; forgetting to bow your head when saying Jesus’s name is a permanent black mark on your soul. The nuns are happy to reinforce these fears, wielding guilt, corporal punishment, and threats of eternal hellfire to preserve order in their classes.
Allowing us deep inside the minds and hearts of these children, Kurtti divides her work into classroom scenes and “epic monologues”–her own term, from a producer’s note for Three Ways Home, the other play for which she’s known. “Stopping to indulge a ‘feeling,’ ‘explain oneself,’ play a ‘moment,’ etc. is dead wrong and should be avoided at all costs,” she says in the note. “Instead the actors should try to understand and passionately embrace their characters’ burning desire to tell this story and to be heard.” That is exactly the urgency these actors convey as they pour the girls’ thoughts out to God or some other unseen listener, revealing ambition, loneliness, anger, and confusion as they describe the details of abusive family situations–revelations that are especially poignant when you remember that at the time the play is set, little girls didn’t often share that sort of thing. These intimate moments with the audience allow the characters to transcend type as they express feelings and insights that we often forget children have.
The Journeymen production, staged in a cozy little church (Methodist, but who’s counting?), flows with impressive ease and captures well the play’s humor and drama. The church sanctuary–on the same level as the audience–is transformed into a classroom with simple desks, holy pictures (Jesus, Mary, and JFK), and a plain but enormous wooden cross on a platform. Doors at either side of the platform make for swift transitions–girls exit through the left door after sixth grade and enter through the right door, seconds later, as eighth graders, complete with new hairdos and attitudes. A girl might run out a door as a second grader and return in a few moments as a nun. All four performers manage their transformations well, not only the evolution of their child characters but also their quick changes into nuns. Most important, these women make exquisite use of their time in the spotlight, during their monologues, displaying a moving vulnerability and emotional honesty–difficult enough when playing someone your own age much less when dipping back into preteen anguish.
If there’s one element in the script that feels ever-so-slightly off-kilter, it’s the portrayal of the nuns. Powers and company manage to redeem their sisters with sympathetic moments and one or two beatific songs (my favorite: “There Are No Cookie Cutters up in Heaven”). Kurtti insists on reducing them to either pure steel or addlepated mush. Their behavior is usually plausible, but the lack of any compassion (beyond one nun’s gift of rabbits’ feet to the girls awaiting their high school entrance exam results) makes this feel a bit like an adolescent revenge play–“Sister Dearest,” perhaps.