Catholic School Girls Review
It’s all about the acting, and that definitely is up to 2nd Story’s sharp and engaging standards.By Kathie Raleigh, Woonsocket Call
When Ed Shea, artistic director at 2nd Story Theatre, announced changes in the lineup of this seasons plays, his rationale was to replace works of pessimism with ones of optimism, to trade contempt for compassion, and to go for some laughs. The real world was enough of a downer without piling on at the theater.
So last month, he staged a funny and thoughtful “Mass Appeal,” about a young seminarian and his more experienced mentor. Coming up is “Educating Rita,” a comedy with a conflict but “written from a joyful, not jaundiced view of the world,” he explained.
And he added one more play for good measure: “Catholic School Girls,” Casey Kurtti’s satire of Catholic school life in the 1960s, currently in the theater’s DownStage space.
This is a no-frills production, without much of a set and no costume changes. It’s all about the acting, and that definitely is up to 2nd Story’s sharp and engaging standards.
The play deals with four female classmates at St. George’s School in Yonkers as they progress from first through eighth grade. The same four actors also play nuns who are the teachers, and while they never change out of their identical school uniforms, they clearly change demeanor; they also move to stand on a raised platform, so you’re never confused about who’s who.
The story is laced with laughter, both at and with the characters, and Kurtti is funniest when the girls are the youngest. Valerie Westgate’s Elizabeth, for example, excitedly envisions heaven as having a big refrigerator filled with goodies that never run out.
Fourth grade is fun, too, when the students compete in the inevitable fundraising talent show and Westgate, Erin Olson as Colleen, and Lara Hakeem as Maria sing “Stop in the Name of Love,” complete with choreography.
There are serious moments, too, as the girls navigate some of life’s hard knocks. Hakeem touchingly portrays the confused emotions of a daughter with a volatile father. Women will cringe with Olson as she remembers an embarrassment related to menstruation. Olson also does a great portrayal of the ruler-wielding Sister Mary Lucille, who keeps discipline by declaring that in the classroom, her will and God’s are one and the same.
These situations are familiar territory, as is putting chewed gum on one’s nose, or being ordered to stay an arm’s length from a partner at the school dance, to “leave room for the Holy Ghost.” As a friend pointed out, however, the familiar stuff is included because it is familiar; people connect with the shared memories.
A bit off the beaten path, however, is Kurtti’s insight on Wanda, well played by Ashley Hunter Kenner. Wanda is the well-behaved, straight-A kid who explains how being smart has its own pitfalls. Kenner also makes the most of the befuddled but sweet Sister Mary Agnes. Westgate’s Valerie, moreover, is interesting as the kid with the vivid imagination – and the most questions.
The best part of the production is the way the actors embody their characters, even when they’re not at the center of attention. They talk when they shouldn’t, they fidget, giggle and pout like, well, school girls. Fresh performances override the familiar material, and if you happen to have attended Catholic school in the 1960s, you’ll appreciate the story, too.