By Samantha Bennett, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I have Maripat Donovan on the phone, and I am already sitting up straighter. The coauthor of "Late Nite Catechism" and original Sister does not need a habit; the no-nonsense voice does it all. She is beyond Sister. She is Mother Superior.
"We were the kind of family where Mom said the rosary on her knee every evening. We talked about St. Thomas Aquinas at the dinner table. I have a big Catholic background."
That big Catholic background has brought many blessings for Donovan in the form of her three "Catechism" shows: "Late Nite Catechism," "Late Nite Catechism 2: Sometimes We Feel Guilty Because We ARE Guilty!" and "Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold," which opened Tuesday at City Theatre and will run through Jan. 8.
Donovan seems to have found her calling.
"I’ve been an actress since the age of 15," she says. "I love the theater; I love the experience of acting." But why all these shows about a nun?
"Sister is the nun I would be, were I a nun." Even as a child, "I thought that nun costumes were cool. I was one for Halloween."
That would have been on the South Side of Chicago, where Donovan grew up. St. Thomas More parish, she notes.
She debuted as the strict and quick-witted Sister in the original "Late Nite Catechism," coauthored with Vicki Quade, in an 88-seat theater in Chicago in May 1993. Sister taught her nostalgic and wildly funny catechism class at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights — hence the name. The show proved so popular that its run was extended, moved to larger houses, expanded and extended some more.
Donovan and director Mark Silvia have created a kind of franchise, auditioning actresses to take the veil as Sister and carry the Catechism to theaters across the country. Donovan estimates there are now 15 or 20 Sisters fining latecomers and handing out glow-in-the-dark rosaries.
It’s a tremendous challenge. "The show is hard to cast," Donovan admits, and if you’ve seen it, you know why. An actress must not only be funny, but must also be well-versed in Catholic dogma and education and comfortable with improvisation and audience interaction. She must be able to take control of an audience while moving seamlessly between scripted and unscripted comedy. She must be absolutely convincing as a nun — and knowledgeable enough to answer questions from real clergy in the audience who may try to stump her.
"It’s not easy to get actresses to do it."
Donovan, 51, is still playing Sister, though she now lives in Hollywood. She will open "Christmas Catechism" this season in California, where 100 performances in different venues are already booked.
The Christmas show is "the funniest of all three, I think. Sister brings the audience up on stage. Everybody gets a prize at the end, a Christmas present from Sister. Chocolates, maybe a holy card. … Chocolate’s the best, because you can always eat it yourself.
"I’ve ordered 40,000 chocolate coins just for California." Sister is strict, but she’s generous.
Instead of an ordinary catechism class, the show is meant to evoke the day of the school Christmas party. The idea grew out of the response to the first two Catechism shows and the lesson Donovan learned from them: "The thing that excites the audience the most is audience stuff." They want to be part of the show, so the party/pageant theme — Sister casts a Christmas pageant from the audience — provides ample opportunity for playgoers to get up on stage.
"They’re very excited by improv. Not to mention candy."
Sister knows her students. And Donovan has struck gold, especially in heavily Catholic cities like Pittsburgh.
"Catholic cities also tend to be big theater cities," she says. But you don’t have to have gone to Catholic school or to even be Catholic to enjoy Sister. What’s universal is "the humor and the humanity." And school.
"It’s the universal classroom situation, where you’re not in charge, but somebody’s in charge of you."
Will there be more Catechism shows? Donovan isn’t working on a fourth yet, but she feels she has plenty of material. And she’s branching out from theater with her real-estate developer sister.
"My sister — my real-life sister, not a nun — and I are going to build some condos in California."
In the meantime, "Sister Rita Mary’s Bingo Extravaganza" opened last month in St. Louis. It’s a history of bingo, interwoven with a story about a church fund-raiser. Most important: "It’s a big party, and everybody gets cake. Even if you don’t like the play, you get cake." And not just any cake. "Sara Lee banana sheet cake," Donovan says with evident pride. There’s a folk-mass singalong and a karaoke contest. "Then they have bingo, and there’s prizes.
"The audience is really liking it."
I’ve heard that bingo was invented in Pittsburgh.
"No," she says, with Sisterly authority. "It was not invented in Pittsburgh — it was invented thousands of years ago. Whoever told you Pittsburgh was not telling the truth."
Kimberly Richards has returned to the habit for "Christmas Catechism" after she was such a hit during the extended run of "Late Nite Catechism" earlier this year. Donovan approves.
"She is so funny. She’s even funnier in the Christmas show."
The original Sister has this advice for "Christmas Catechism" students:
"Absolutely bring a camera. We’re encouraging camera use. What if your mother was the Virgin Mary? Flash photography is encouraged. Because, I mean, who knows what’s going to happen?
"Don’t chew gum. Don’t wear a short skirt. Don’t come in late. Wear the most Christmassy outfits." And don’t be nervous about performing.
"The fun thing is that no one’s ever forced to participate — unless of course you’re doing something wrong." But you may surprise yourself.
"The ones most dead-set against participating end up on stage," Donovan says.
"I swear to God."
(Samantha Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-3572. For tickets, call 412-431-2489.)