In Circle Theatre’s production of Hail Mary!, an actor tells a joke that sounds like a classic from parochial school circles: During a holiday celebration, a refreshment table is set with plates of apples and cookies. In front of the apples is a note written by a stern nun: “Take just one. God is watching.” The cookie plate also has a note but one scribbled by a rebellious student: “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”
If that makes you laugh, you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy Circle’s lively, big-hearted staging of Tom Dudzick’s script. Hail Mary! is the fourth Dudzick play the company has tackled, all of them under the direction of Harry Parker, chair of TCU’s theater department. The latest is, by design, a comedy that repeats many of the themes of shows like Bill C. Davis’ Mass Appeal and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, including lots of contentious dialogue about tradition versus innovation, the dangers of absolutism in faith, and the delicate balancing act that any would-be reformer must strike so as not to sacrifice the best of an institution along with its excesses.
Here, the intellectually bold and intensely compassionate Catholic school teacher Mary (Lynn Blackburn) faces off against the reserved and imperious Mother Regina (Lois Sonnier Hart) over how to answer simple but serious grade-school questions like: “Can God’s feelings be hurt?” Mary is a novice, a nun in training, so she’s dependent on the mother superior’s favorable opinion. Yet she also feels she’s damaging her charges by teaching them the idea of God as a temperamental, legalistic patriarch.
Dudzick’s plot sometimes veers into easy sentimentality, including the sudden reappearance of Mary’s high school love interest, Joe (Joel McDonald), a recent widower whose son is enrolled in the school. Subjected again to his romantic attentions, the young teacher is forced to reconsider her commitment to the church on every level. Fresh dramatic ground is not exactly being broken before the audience’s eyes.
Don’t let the multiple contrivances in Hail Mary! bug you too much, or you’ll miss a wealth of sharp, invigorating, and occasionally hilarious verbal sparring over existential issues that transcend Catholicism. The cast, including Monica Rivera as Mary’s dithery confidante, Sister Felicia, displays ideal comic timing and a tonal dexterity that enables them to navigate the script’s silly and sober directions. Set designer Bill Newberry has created a grade-school classroom whose little details — the letters of the alphabet posted across the wall, some construction paper autumn leaves taped to the window — emphasize a point that often gets lost in plays about ideas: Complex philosophies are, in the end, just attempts to answer very basic questions about the world.
Look no further than the show’s exclamatory title to see where the playwright’s sympathy lies: with the liberal dissident wannabe nun Mary. The author even gives her a mentor and supporter in the form of a retired Polish priest named Father Stanley (Alan Shorter), a bearded troublemaker who claims to be able to read people’s auras and who has come by his own progressive leanings through a tragic experience during his days as a family counselor. The balance of the arguments are stacked in the duo’s favor, although the author doesn’t refrain from investing his crusaders with all the frustrations and fears that come with a faith that honors doubt.
The script has enough dramatic symmetry not to make Mother Regina into the black-caped she-beast of Christopher Durang’s stage nightmares. She sincerely views conservative church teaching as a solid foundation for living and a bulwark against life’s arbitrary cruelties, as exemplified by a family crisis from her own youth that led her into a lifetime of church service.
Circle Theatre is staging Hail Mary! not long after the acclaimed movie version of the aforementioned Doubt. Some playgoers may be tempted to dismiss Dudzick’s play as an empty-calorie knockoff of Shanley’s — the territory they cover is similar. But because Hail Mary! doesn’t carry the grave mission of rescuing a child from a suspected pedophile priest, it’s free to wade into deeper (though not darker) waters, exploring concepts like free will, the role of gender in religious devotion, and the danger of categories like “right” and “wrong.” During intermission and immediately after last Friday night’s performance, the older couple behind me engaged in a spirited exchange that included topics like reincarnation and the possible genetic predisposition toward faith. These weren’t covered in the show, of course, but kudos to the performers for setting ticketbuyers’ minds abuzz. Audiences who want a bracing summertime combination of laughter and deep thoughts should check out Circle’s beaming comedy.
Thru June 13 at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $20-30. 817-877-3040.