Authors: Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan
At: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-988-9000 or Ticketmaster.com; $30. Runs ongoing through 2018
"When you wear this outfit," says the imposing nun, staring us all down from the blackboard, "you get respect."
And it's true, at Royal George Theatre's Late Nite Catechism. With all the commands the sister issues, it's a wonder she's got time to teach this adult remedial Catechism class. Spit out your gum, speak in full sentences, don't be late ( unless you'd like to be out a dollar ), no interrupting the sister while she's speaking and, for the love of all that is holy, no texting in class. The sistera tiny, ferocious force of nature played by Mary Zentmyermay not rap you on the knuckle with a ruler, but she's got a collection of broken rulers she's crafted into fine furniture, so don't test her patience.
In this perennial Chicago staple, patrons are treated to the briefest overview of Catholicism wrapped in a habit of woolen baby-boomer nostalgia, as well as a heaping dose of firm but gentle chastising. The sister purports to have eyes in the back of her head as she steps to the blackboard to prepare her lessons, and it's true. As she instructs her class on venial and mortal sins, afterlife stages such as limbo and purgatory, or the virtues of undervalued saints, she's on the lookout for misbehavior. With each punishment she doles out, the sister harkens back to the Catholic Church of the 1960s, when parishes were huge, skirts were longer, and every spare cent went to the pagan baby fund canister.
Zentmyer rules over her pupils with an iron fist, and nothing gets past her scrutinous standards. If she has to hold up the whole class to correct grammar or have pupils take off their hats, she will. She is fantastically charming and enjoys every minute of holding her audience in rapt attention.
This Catechism has less to do with the lord than her own heyday in the 1960s. For the lapsed and aging believers, Zentmyer as well as authors Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan invest considerable effort in evoking memories of parishes, orders of nuns, proper mass attendance and that all-important first time getting a strike on your permanent record. The remaining audience ( protestants and uninitiated young people ) must catch up in a hurry if we want a chance at the sister's table full of trinkets and treasures.
Directors Marc Silva and Vince Cracht have built a lived-in Sunday-school classroom world, virtually unchanged since this production premiered in 1993. Why toy with what works for countless droves of good Catholics, their great-aunties and in-laws? Late Nite Catechism is a nice, harmless night outand it benefits real retired nuns, to boot.