Saturday 7 March 2015

Sister Judy tackles Jesus, love & commitment

Backdrop to the play : In a time of worldwide terrorism, jihad! and the beheading of Christians on the shores of Tripoli, a play that debates the tenets of New Testament theology might be sentimental-&-quaint -- or possibly just irrelevant. Until one focuses on the L-word behind it all : love. And then it has the power to magnetize.

Sister Judy is a local piece by former Nova Scotian Shawn Macdonald who once upon a time pulled a stint at a Catholic university back there studying theology and philosophy (as did this reviewer at a Baptist college in Michigan a lifetime ago). His play was eight years in the birthing from its original conception, finally championed for production this season as an Arts Club's Silver Commissions Project.

At first blush the plot is fairly basic. Sister Judy Maclean [Jenny Wasko-Paterson] teaches religious history at a Catholic university somewhere east of Eden. Father Frank Sweeney [Mike Wasko] is her bosom buddy (and, incidentally, real-life spouse). On Friday evenings the two of them swap single malts and foot-rubs and social jib-jab in Judy's campus office, her refuge. Enter Ruth [Lili Beaudoin], a chippy chirpy teenage Frosh nerd. She announces herself a big-time fan of Judy's copious scholarship about the emergence of Christianity from the time of St. Paul up to Emperor Constantine. It was Constantine's Nicene Creed in the early 4th Century, of course, that established Christianity as the official religion of the occidental world.  

Frank, for his part, has recently begun to question the Vatican's claim to be the world's "one true religion". He grapples with Jesus-as-Christ 
-vs- Jesus-the-Jewish-carpenter. Is it right that Rome's official messengers must be celibate priests and nuns nearly 1,700 years later, he wonders? As he decamps Judy's refuge the first Friday in September he asks / tells her : "Don't worry about me, pray for me!"

Judy struggles to respond with "faith statements" to the challenges thrown at her both by the ingenue Ruth and the starting-to-lapse Frank. "Love," she proclaims, "is the most important thing ever. It feeds us and creates for us what we are all looking for. Without Jesus, there is no love, only a universe of lost and broken souls."

Ruth stumbles up to Judy's lecturn weeping after the first lecture of the year. She starts to blubber spontaneously about how confused and lonely she is. Judy jumps in and asks her if she's struggling with her faith. Ruth doesn't answer. Tears come. Words fail. They agree to meet later. And from there the play unfolds.

Debates drive the dialogue : On one level, the play canvasses some traditional debates that have long raged in the Christian community : institutional devotion and faith -vs- the "personhood" of both Jesus and contemporary followers. When Judy challenges Frank, who is boycotting his duties, "What about the the mass, what about the liturgy?" Frank spits back : "What about me? As long as we say the magic words every day the church doesn't give a good goddamn! It's God's curse -- He's really great! the greatest! -- but I can't feel His arms around me."

Re-enter Ruth. She throws all sorts of intellectual spitballs at Sister Judy's defence of the Church and its doctrines. Judy's intrigued by this precocious student who, socially, is a cork bobbing in an ocean of Frosh beer and frat parties she's trying desperately to avoid. Ruth tells her how her mother died when she was just seven. And her dad is a social misfit who retired from his psychiatric practice so he could marry one of his patients. Judy is touched by these tales. She invites Ruth to dinner one Friday. Judy sees herself in this role as Ruth's "sister" Judy and her surrogate mom, both. "May our friendship be long and a safe place for both of us," Judy tells Ruth in a piece of consummate foreshadowing.

In vino veritas : Unlikely as it seems given their respective roles as professor and student, Judy and Ruth commence dinner with Judy pounding back the zinfandel as if compressing a decade of communion cups into a single night's vespers. Ruth takes advantage of Judy's growing inebriation. She digs into her past as a teenager, as student, as, possibly, an ex-girlfriend or lover of boys before she took the holy vows. At one point, looking at Ruth's tattoos, Judy implies Ruth may be gay. "Gay!?" Ruth explodes. "Just because I think guys my age are idiots, does that make me a dike? Just because you think I'm a sad little screwed-up orphan girl?"

The conversation focuses on Ruth's robust skepticism about Judy's "mystical union with Christ". Liturgy, love, and life's lost stories all get a vigorous verbal workout and crescendo. The play builds to a resounding climax that reveals core truths about who each of Judy and Ruth and Frank really are at the moment, at this point along life's path. But also who they were during other sidetrack jaunts in their lives. Where, possibly, their apocalyptic revelations will lead. Back to church and its liturgies and sanctuary? Forward down more personal spiritual paths? Together, alone, who's to tell.

Production values : Sister Judy is first-rate drama. Its characters are real and believable. Their struggles resonate. Its theme is as timeless as time. In playwright Macdonald's words : "Our fear of the unknown, of 'living in the question,' prevents us from relaxing our grip on our truth. We live our entire lives out of that truth and make all kinds of decisions and choices designed to keep that truth alive, and 'the question' at bay." 

When "truth" is based on words rather than on the tender touch of lovers, friends and family -- when it's hooked to the idea of love rather than to raw impulse and the viscera of our guts -- the choices we make may generate loss and scar tissue and spiritual isolation instead, Macdonald seems to say.

Lots of kudos to Director Patrick McDonald for his obvious inspiration to his characters. As Ruth, Lili Beaudoin revealed terrific emotional power and thrust. Her skills will adorn many a Vancouver stage in years to come. An exceptional Brava! performance of breadth and depth and sheer energy. 

Jenny Wasko-Paterson gave Sister Judy an emotionally tight and nuanced turn. To "stage" inebriation in its phases as she did -- both physically and emotionally -- is plain hard to do convincingly.

Mike Wasko as Frank, still a virgin at midlife -- wondering whether he should just continue to masturbate and go to confession the rest of his days or take the plunge, doff his collar and sign up for singles' cruises -- was spot-on in showing us how love is more than an idea and a verse.

Only one aspect of the afternoon's delight troubled me. The sheer bulk of the upstage scrim behind centre stage. Ted Roberts' creation of Sister Judy's "refuge office" stage left was perfect in its clutter and intimacy of ideas stacked willy-nilly. And her dining room stage right in the nunnery was rich in its aged brocade feel. But that damn scrim. Too-wide by six to eight feet! i.m.o. The distance between the office and the dining room was disconcertingly and distractingly large : the eye wanted the set scrunched together, more intimate. But such is mere quibble. Overall the set had Roberts' magical touches that are his trademark and for which I have long championed him.

Who gonna like : It probably wouldn't hurt for folks to have a wee footing in Christian practice and tradition to derive full measure from Shawn Macdonald's clever creation here. But "it ain't necessarily so", as the old lyric has it. Because the power of the performance comes from its subtitle -- "A Love Story" -- and love whether talked about in Scripture or poems or novels or the lyrics of pop music or, better yet, acted out in person, love is always magnetizing as I said at the start. This last production at the Revue Theatre before next season at the new Olympic Village civic venue is an inviting and engaging and utterly rewarding 90 minutes of drama and stage excellence. 

Particulars.  Created and written by Shawn Macdonald.  At the Revue Stage, Granville Island through March 21st. Show duration 90 minutes, no intermission. Performance schedules and tickets via 604.687.1644 or

Production crew.   Director Patrick McDonald.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Darryl Milot.  Lighting Designer Martin Conboy.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Apprentice Stage Manager Fernanda de Maio Teixeira.

Performers.  Lili Beaudoin.  Mike Wasko.  Jenny Wasko-Paterson.


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