‘Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It all for You’ at American Century Theater by David Friscic

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If you want to go back in time to those glorious days when you were a tortured student in parochial school  taught by the “nun from Hell,”  then consider signing up for a scathing session of rigorous, dogmatic classroom instruction as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It all for You.

Cam Magee (Sister Mary Ignatius) and Arturo Tolentino (Aloysius). Photo by Johannes Markus.

Presented by the American Century Theater (TACT) – this scathing one act play marks the first time that this group has ventured into the dark and hilarious world of playwright Christopher Durang. In a tightly directed hour and ten minutes (with no intermission) you are held spellbound by this very intriguing and satiric look at the authoritarian “take no prisoners” classroom methodology of certain Catholic school teachers of that time. Certainly this intriguing look back to more controlling times resonates today as we deal daily with polarizing  fundamentalist and authoritarian legislation and attitudes from all sectors of society. This bitter and sardonic look at the  tyrannical Sister Mary Ignatius is made bearable by the fact that this sort of nun is no longer the norm – the nuns of today are being criticized by the Catholic Church for being too liberal and progressive.

The audience is propelled into the very specific and real feeling of a Catholic schoolroom of the time for the audience walks into a large room to encounter five rows of desks, a blackboard, and – on top of the blackboard – the essential requisites for a Catholic school room of the time: a picture of the Pope, a picture of President John F. Kennedy and a picture of Jesus. Set Designer Steven Royal is to be commended for very realistically conveying this atmosphere and for setting the appropriate visual tone of this piece. The line of demarcation between audience and actors is stripped away as Director Joe Banno has the actors portraying the roles physically interspersed among the audience members – the highly physically interactive feel of this play is accentuated by the hectoring Sister Mary lecturing her students while walking up and down the aisles of her “classroom” (i.e.: the audience–).

Cam Magee (Sister Mary Ignatius) and Colin Trinity (Thomas). Photo by Johannes Markus.

As the formidable Sister Mary Ignatius, Cam Magee exhibits the right degree of benign malevolence that fits the role. Dressed in the “penguined garb” of the time, Magee must do most of her acting only with her mostly covered face and her voice. It is to her credit that she never overplays the role which would make the play too obvious. Instead, Magee almost underplays with subtlety and finesse and, consequently, we are left enthralled by her technique. Magee keeps us absorbed by her obvious understanding that there is a lot of concealment and repression in this character.

Standouts in the cast are Tiffany Garfinkle (Diane) and Arturo Tolentino (Aloysius). Garfinkle’s comic timing is superb and she often reminds one of a young Madeline Kahn. Tolentino as Aloysius, the student who is constantly obstructed from going to the bathroom, offers an interesting portryal of a person who is both aggrieved and anxious.

Durang’s play takes patience on the part of the audience as the first third of the play is very heavy with very literal explication but this patience pays off in a very surprising conclusion. Though Durang’s one-acter may seem to be tailored for a more specialized audience of former Catholic school attendees, the moral questions it raises could apply to almost any authoritarian microcosm. Director Joe Banno does a brilliant job of pulling all the various elements of this challenging production together and TACT Artistic Director, Jack Marshall, should be commended for the vision to produce such provocative fare.

Anne Nottage (Philomena) and Cam Magee (Sister Mary Ignatius). Photo by Johannes Markus.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Sister May Ignatius Explains It all For You opens plays through Saturday, July 7, 2012 at American Century Theater – at Gunston Arts Center’s Theatre II – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 998-4555, or order them online.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.