Some actors are destined to play certain roles, but you never really know the perfect match until you see it. Over the last three years, Montana Rep Missoula stalwart Teresa Waldorf has played bit parts as a depressed suburban wife, a desperate adoptive mom and a goofy foreign director, and assumed a half-dozen different personas in a series of scenes written by Barret O’Brien. All of these turns demonstrated the proficiency and skill of a theater veteran, but none really let Waldorf cut loose or carry a show. She was simply filling roles. As Sister Mary Ignatius, though, Waldorf becomes something else entirely—a whirlwind of humor, wit, stubbornness and evangelical nonsense that stops for nothing short of Jesus Christ himself. Waldorf doesn’t just fill this role, she owns it.
Just as MRM’s recent Thom Pain relied solely on the talent of star Andrew Rizzo, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You is almost entirely Waldorf’s show. But right about there the comparisons end. Whereas Pain simmered in palpable angst, challenged its audience, and squeezed smidgens of humor from awkward tension, Sister Mary is a ridiculous farce right from the start.
Just the initial sight and sound of Waldorf’s energetically intractable nun is enough to get things rolling. Wielding a yardstick, wearing a Dick Cheney-like scowl and speaking in an unnervingly shrill bark, Waldorf channels something akin to Dana Carvey’s famous “Church Lady” character. She uses the same ploy of feigning playfulness before dire seriousness—the rap of the yardstick replacing Carvey’s signature “Well could it be…Satan?”—and then takes things six steps further, extending her lectures on the origins and sanctities of Catholicism to preposterous extremes. We learn where little un-baptized babies go to die and receive details of the crucifixion in a way that would make even Mel Gibson squirm. We hear about how the confusion between virgin birth and the Immaculate Conception drives Sister Mary batty, and why modern day Sodoms have body lice and hepatitis. It’s absurd, right down to the play’s classroom setting and the few asides when we learn of Sister Mary’s tragic childhood—and it’s laugh-out-loud funny because Waldorf’s character relishes every moment. At one point, she sits in a rolling chair, pushes back across the stage and kicks up her legs like some giddy teen. We’ve been invited into Waldorf’s wheelhouse with this play, and are simply along for the ride.
For the most part, Christopher Durang’s script and Rosie Ayers’ direction let the lead chew up the stage with little distraction. The play, which debuted 28 years ago much to the chagrin of the Church, creates a forum for Sister Mary to educate the audience—the title says it all—and for 30 minutes that’s all she does. The only interruption comes from 7-year-old Thomas (Aidan Evans), one of Sister Mary’s pupils who is beckoned to bring her water and cookies and, in return for treats of his own, recites answers to Catechism questions. Evans possesses that infectious, well-placed kid cuteness usually found in a Cameron Crowe film. It’s awe-shucks charming when he occasionally jumbles lines, and his tuft of blond hair, round glasses and brimming smile make an adorable on-stage package. He’s a nifty complement to Waldorf, and the two strike a natural and strong rapport.
Things get a little more absurd when some of Sister Mary’s former students, now grown-up, arrive unannounced to stage a recital. It’s a jarring and unwelcome tangent watching Waldorf go from center stage to idly viewing these interlopers, but it moves quickly enough before eventually propelling the play to its appropriately bizarre end. With the whole show clocking in at just over an hour, a brief digression that involves a camel and some purposefully off-key singing is probably excusable.
But any time spent away from Waldorf’s Sister Mary is ultimately wasted. After nearly three decades, Durang’s play remains very funny, a promising diatribe in the hands of a performer like Waldorf. As for its one-time daringness in tackling taboo topics? Its supposed haymakers aimed to give the Church a black eye? Those don’t land quite as meaningfully as perhaps they did before. That sort of disconnect is rare for a company like MRM, which strives to produce contemporary theater and avoid even the slightest dated material. But it ends up not mattering because MRM has Waldorf and, with Sister Mary, her perfect role.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You continues at the Crystal Theatre through Saturday, Nov. 10, at 8 PM. $10 Thursday/$15 Friday and Saturday, with $5 student rush every night.