If you've had your fill of nun jokes and believe that not one more ounce of humor can be squeezed from the ruins of a Catholic childhood, Late Nite Catechism will change your mind. It's hilarious, first-rate fun. Playing upstairs in the Grand Hall of the Grandel Theatre, Catechism is a one-woman tour de force for Jane Morris, a fine actress with incredible improv skills who plays a nun called simply Sister. She's an amalgam of every nun you ever had, but Morris takes her beyond stereotype. Her affectionate performance reminds us that some of those nuns who taught us were smart, well-educated, funny and, underneath all those clothes, actually pretty sophisticated.
The premise of what could loosely be called the play finds Sister teaching St. Bruno's adult catechism class to us, the audience. Sister takes us through some religion instruction, stories of saints and loads of jokes (some shameless) all playing off our assumed communal experience of Catholic education. How this plays with non-Catholics (rumor has it there are a few in St. Louis) is hard to tell, but Morris is such a gifted performer that she could probably draw a laugh from a Taliban member. A Los Angeles-based actress, Morris is a Second City alumna and a regular on The Drew Carey Show. Her ad-libs are so grounded in character that it's nearly impossible to tell where the script ends and her spontaneity begins. She calls on members of the audience for answers to her catechism questions, rewarding them with glow-in-the-dark rosaries or crucifix penknives. She's obviously done her research and has loads of information at her fingertips that she skillfully weaves into the proceedings. As names of audience members trigger stories of obscure saints, their weird, gory biographies roll off her tongue, always followed by a sweet "Isn't that a good story?"
The set resembles a third-glass classroom. The required pictures of the saints and JFK ("our finest Catholic president") adorn the walls, and there's a tiny chair made from pieces of rulers broken over the knuckles of wayward boys (girls, after all, are always good), back when that sort of thing was still legal. Sister may profess to long for the good old days before Vatican II, but she's smart and liberal enough that, when prompted by an audience member, she respectfully questions the pope's stand against female priests. Morris stays in character even in these moments, making it believable and totally understandable that a nun who's taught for 30 years would have this opinion. During some of her unscripted sections, Morris seriously discusses and explains contemporary church doctrine in an erudite and understandable manner that some teachers would envy. But even these discourses end with a laugh.
This is an affectionate look at sisterhood; there's neither the caustic invective of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (where the nun was out-and-out nuts) or the stereotyped stupidity of Nunsense. This play would never be banned by the archdiocese, as Sister Mary was, and, indeed, church groups are buying tickets in blocks. The script, which allows plenty of room for Morris' flights of fancy and interaction with the audience, was written by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan, who also originated the role of Sister some eight years ago in Chicago, where this kind of improv-scripted hybrid is a staple. (For some reason, it's never been tried here in St. Louis; Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre comes closest in spirit, but that company's shows aren't interactive.) Since then, Donovan has groomed other actresses for the role, and the show is playing in New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. This type of "chain theater" has never played well in St. Louis, going back as far as Shear Madness, but this production will break that trend. Fox Associates, in association with Grand Center Inc., brought the show to town, and it's exactly the kick in the pants Grand Center needs. The run is scheduled through at least Dec. 30, giving it plenty of time to build word of mouth, and, because it's never the same show twice, call up your old schoolmates and go several times.