Commiserating in Catholicism: Sister’s Christmas Catechism

"Sister" Denise Fennell, photo credit: EEI.

Sister’s Christmas Catechism by Maripat Donovan with Jane Morris and Marc Silvia, Stoneham Theatre, 11/25/11-12/23/11 (in repertory with The Nutcracker),

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Stoneham, MA) “How many of you used to get hit with a wooden spoon?” deadpans Sister (Denise Fennell) in the middle of the one-woman show, Sister’s Christmas Catechism.  Hands shoot up in the audience, the owners near tears with laughing.  “We used to run as soon as my mom reached for the drawer.”

The audience reaction should seem sad.  Such a statement feels more at home in the setting of a support group.  Yet through Fennell’s deft handling of the subject-matter, it often is funny.  Sister’s Christmas Catechism is filled with ad-libbed material that tap-dances on the most sensitive spots of the recovering Catholic psyche, and it takes Fennel’s sharp comic timing and extreme “been-there-done-that” sensitivity to pull it off.

The show is more akin to a props-filled stand-up routine than a play.  There is no plot to speak of and little character development.  The action takes place in an adult catechism class, confusingly held in a theater.  Sister both explains the Catholic lore of Christmas and shows what’s behind the curtain of the Catholic Church with her asides on growing up in the faith.

The script is a brilliant piece of niche marketing, one of several Catechism plays aimed squarely at the millions of grown Catholics who love to chuckle about their upbringing.  While critics can quibble about whether it’s true “theatre” (said with a Harvard flourish), that may be just sour grapes for not thinking of such a money-making script idea first.  With this script and the right crowd, all a producer needs is an actor with strong charisma and sharp comedic timing.

Fennell has both to spare.  Throughout the evening, it is a joy to watch her befuddled and resigned expression as the audience fails to live up to her expectations of what good Catholics should do.  And just like with the teacher (or nun) you can’t make smile until Christmas, the best moments are when Sister reveals her own transgressions or when Fennell breaks character and begins to giggle.

Sister’s most frequent and most effective prop is the audience.  It seems that nearly 1/3 of theatergoers get in the act, including taking a ribbing about dress code, sharing their Catholic backgrounds or being part of a ridiculous Nativity scene.  (Disclosure: I was a shepherd.  Sister and I chatted onstage about the moral shortcomings of a character on Little House on the Prairie.)

This audience participation can sometimes go a bit too long.  Fennell spends much of the evening rifting on the bios of audience members, and that takes time away from aiming her sharp wit at the rich material available in the quirks of Catholic belief.

At moments, Fennell even seems to have trouble controlling the audience, who all seem to know each other and chat as if it is something of a Catholic reunion.  But it’s hard to fault an actor for giving theatergoers too much of a sense of community or too good a time.  It just means that it’s a fun show to see if you’re not Catholic, but a really funny one to see if you are.

The show is part of Fennell’s campaign to raise funds for a charity to support retired sisters, who don’t receive Social Security and often languish behind priests in retirement care and benefits.  So even if you’ve fallen away from the church (ahem), you can feel good about going to laugh at the experience.



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