Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You
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Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You is a play by Christopher Durang first performed on December 14, 1979, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City. It was performed on a bill with one-act plays that included works by David Mamet, Marsha Norman, and Tennessee Williams. Durang, who was raised a Roman Catholic, won an Obie Award for the play as did Elizabeth Franz for her role as Sister Mary Ignatius.
The play revolves around a nun, Sister Mary Ignatius, explaining to the audience the basic tenets of Catholicism. She is assisted by her favorite student, seven-year-old Thomas. From time to time, she asks him catechism questions and gives him a cookie for every right answer. Half-way into her speech, some of her former students, now grown up, enter to perform a mock Christmas pageant from their childhood days and reveal to Sister Mary the deep psychological trauma her teachings left on them. Sister Mary's unwavering dogma combined with the absurdist nature of the play add elements of biting comedy.
In 1981, the play was presented again, this time on a double bill with a new Durang one-act, The Actor's Nightmare. Elizabeth Franz repeated her acclaimed performance as Sister Mary, and in The Actor's Nightmare, she played the glamorous Sarah Siddons. Jeff Brooks played the accountant in that play who shows up at a theatre and is told he is the understudy and must go on; and in Sister Mary, he played the troubled alcoholic ex-student Aloysius. Others in the cast included Polly Draper, as the emotionally wounded girl who threatens Sister's life, Mary Catherine Wright as the unwed mother, Timothy Landfield as the polite gay one, and young Mark Stefan as little Thomas. The double bill — featuring Sister Mary — was presented at Playwrights Horizons in New York City and was directed by Jerry Zaks. It was a critical success and moved to off-Broadway where it ran for two and a half years. As the run went on, other actresses took over the role of Sister: Nancy Marchand, Kathleen Chalfant, Mary Louise Wilson, Lynn Redgrave, and Patricia Gage.
In Los Angeles, Elizabeth Huddle and then Lynn Redgrave played Sister Mary. Thomas was played alternately by seven-year-old Chad Allen and 10 year old Shane Butterworth. In San Francisco, Sister Mary was played by Cloris Leachman, Lynn Redgrave and Peggy Cass. Thomas was played by eight-year-old Solomon Cheifer. In Los Angeles, the play was revived in 2004 at the ARK Theatre Company in a production directed by Susan Lee Johnson.
The play's stark criticism of Catholicism eventually led to controversy. Some conservative Catholics were offended by the play's stereotyping, and in St. Louis and Boston, major protests against the play occurred. Attempts were made to keep the play from being produced, though they were unsuccessful in stopping it in St. Louis or Boston. In St. Louis, two state senators attempted to pass a law penalizing theatres that did not promise not to present plays people might find offensive, but after much publicity, the bill failed in committee.
Phil Donahue devoted a full episode of his national talk show to the controversy, focused on efforts to close the play in St. Louis. Video clips of the Los Angeles production were shown during the program, and box office increased greatly in New York and Los Angeles after the program.
The play's large success in major cities very much stamped Durang as a notable satirist.
In many editions of the play, there is an afterword by Christopher Durang which explains many notes and errata on possible performances of the play.
Frank Rich of New York Times wrote, "only a writer of real talent can write an angry play that remains funny and controlled even in its most savage moments. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You confirms that Christopher Durang is just such a writer". Lynn Trenning of Art Savant wrote that "the script is brilliant in its grasp of the ironic inconsistencies between Catholic doctrine and practical reality" while noting in her review of the original off Broadway production by the Off-Tryon Theatre Company that the lead's "too gentle demeanor failed to convince me she was the Sister Mary Ignatius who terrified children into obedience".
- Rich, Frank (22 October 1981). "THEATER: ONE-ACTERS BY DURANG". New York Times. Retrieved 16 January 2010.
- Tenning, Lynn (16 February 2001). "review: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Lone Star". Art Savant. Retrieved 19 January 2010.