Thoughts & Musings

The Lord’s Where?

2nd Story Theatre stages play about girls coming of age in Catholic school.

by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
  • 13th April 201613/04/16
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If a Catholic school education is anything close to what playwright Casey Kurtti portrays in “Catholic School Girls,” then I have to thank my lucky stars and stripes forever and whoever is in charge “up there” that I was subjected to the less rigorous regimen of a public school. A public school education with an absence of ecclesiastical tenents embedded in the curriculum is to my mind far more attractive than the schooling scrutinized in 2nd Story Theatre’s production of Kurtti’s comedy now running in Warren.

The playwright has a unique view of Catholic school and an enormous gift for storytelling; she uses both to full advantage in her examination of four young students receiving a rudimentary education at St. George’s School in Yonkers, New York, during the late ’50s to the mid-1960s. Kurtti’s considerable skills as a grammarian are augmented auspiciously by her sensitivity to and familiarity with the universal adolescence angst everyone experiences. Kurtti puts faces on that angst.

The play follows the adventures (or misadventures) of Maria (Lara Hakeem), Colleen (Erin Olson), Elizabeth (Valerie Westgate) and Wanda (Ashley Hunter Kenner) from the fourth through the eighth grade. In addition to playing a student, each of the actors assumes as well the role of a teacher or administrator at some point in the play. These transitions from student to teacher are performed as easily as a priest serving a wafer and in no way detract from the forward progress of the fast-paced plot.

Whether in the student or teacher role, each member of Ed Shea’s cast performs flawlessly. All four actors have lengthy monologues that prompt laughs or tears — maybe both — that they deliver with a genuine sense of wonder. In their relationship with one another and their classmates, the girls display all the things that make growing up so hard. They are cliquish, jealous, opinionated, boy-crazy, callous and insecure.

I cannot imagine any four actors at any level playing these roles any better or even as well as Hakeem, Olson, Westgate and Kenner. It is hard to believe that Hakeem is the same actor who played a sultry dominatrix in “Venus in Fur” last season or that it was Westgate who wowed audiences as Joan of Arc in “Saint Joan” a couple of years ago. Likewise, Olson’s touching performance as Rose in “Dancing at Lughnasa” is a far cry from that of Colleen in this production, but it is no less exceptional. Kenner, too, excels in the role of the Polish teacher’s pet, Wanda, a role that is in sharp contrast to that of all bra and no brains Susan Hollister in “The Murder Room” staged in 2013.

Max Ponticelli’s set design is tribute to the dark side. With the exception of four blond desks and chairs, the whole set is black. There are five arched windows upstage behind a black lectern, but Steve Mclellan’s lighting design doesn’t allow any outside light to enter the school. The “light,” then one must surmise, comes from the knowledge being conveyed to the students from their less than sympathetic teachers — the sisters of the hood.

Ron Cesario’s costumes are right on the mark emulating perfectly, right down to the saddle-oxfords, the uniforms worn by Catholic school girls all over the Ocean State.

“Catholic School Girls” is a no-holds-barred romp across a personal and metaphysical landscape that examines not only the nature of God but also the nature of human beings during that inglorious ride through early adolescence. The play is filled with laughs, wonder, rage, friendship, faith, doubt and jealousy — all the things that make adolescence (and theater) so compelling. Forget the rosary, but put on your thinking cap and get on down to Warren for 2nd Story’s affecting and humorous look at “benefits” of a Catholic school education. You might just learn something.

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