By Marilyn A. Busch
Celebrate the Easter season with “some bunny” special at Sister’s Easter Catechism: Will My Bunny Go to Heaven? at Trinity Rep from March 1st through the 19th. Sister’s Easter Catechism sheds a comical light upon the great mysteries of the Easter season – plus those fuzzy bunnies, bonnets and baskets.
Originally created by Chicago actress Maripat Donovan, Sister’s “sinfully funny” series of comedic religious “refresher courses” have been in session now for over 23 years, with seven different themed shows touring the year-round.
For the Rhode Island performances, actress Nonie Riley will take on the mantle of Sister. I spoke to the actress from her home in LA, where she told me she was celebrating her 17th year touring as Sister. “It’s a great job for an ‘old bag’, because I don’t have to be cute,” she says with a laugh, “I just have to look like a mean old nun.”
While the show will ring true with anyone that grew up in the Catholic church culture, Riley points out that it also attracts a wider audience. “This show has a strong appeal to non-Catholics,” she explains, “there’s always been a fascination with the church – and the saints, the rules, the nuns. The show is not a real catechism class,” she says, “but a really funny comedy.”
And Riley surely knows her way around comedy. The Chicago native honed her improvisation skills with the acclaimed Second City and has had a long career as an improv comic, actress and television writer. She also brings with her the wealth of information she received growing up in an Irish Catholic family of ten and attending Catholic School in the 50s and 60s. She readily admits getting into her share of trouble with the nuns. “I was not a saint,” she says with a chuckle, “so my mother finds this all very ironic.”
Priests and nuns were a big presence in her neighborhood in Chicago, and in her family life as well. “My aunt was a nun, you had the priest or the Monsignor over to Sunday dinner, it was just just part of who you were…I grew up in the culture, I understand it.”
As for Sister’s Easter Catechism, Riley explains that while scripted, there is a lot of audience input. “I don’t think of it as a one-woman show because I interact heavily with the audience. I never feel like I’m up there myself.” All of the shows have a question & answer period where audience members can ask Sister anything they wish about the Catholic Church. When asked if she has ever been caught without an answer, she says so far she’s been pretty lucky. “The real trick to having fun in the show is letting other people talk…so every show is so different. You could go to 10 shows in a row and never feel like you were looking at the same thing…that’s what the audience brings”
The best advice she ever received was from the show’s author, Maripat Donovan who told her to “just play the character as if you yourself became a nun.” The shows don’t mock the church, but as Riley explains, “the success of these shows is that we are having fun, but we are not making fun.
All of which makes it the perfect part for Riley. “I try to give people some bang for their buck,” she says, “I want them to leave with a smile, let’s have fun, let’s see what people are in the mood for…that’s how I approach every show.”
Sister’s Easter Catechism, Will My Bunny Go to Heaven? is playing March 1-19 at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets are $29-$49 and are on sale now online at www.trinityrep.com and by phone at (401) 351-4242.