Another `nun' flies into town for role

Actress: Star of off-Broadway production takes over Baltimore role in "Late Nite Catechism"


March 01, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Late Nite Catechism" is now in its sixth month at F. Scott Black's Theatre in Towson and on its fourth nun. New York actress Colleen O'Neill arrived a few days ahead of schedule in January when the third actress to play the role of "Sister" came down with the flu.

Although O'Neill had been starring in the long-running off-Broadway production, she'd been out of commission for a few weeks due to foot surgery. "My big task was to see if I could get a shoe on. Fortunately, Sister wears these great big, black sensible shoes," the 52-year-old actress said this week.

A Washington native and product of Roman Catholic schools in Alexandria, Va., O'Neill had starred in the one-woman show in a half-dozen cities before arriving in Baltimore, but this is her favorite yet. "I fondly refer to Baltimore as the Catholic corridor. I just adore how many people have been taught by nuns," she said, adding that she was writing a letter to a 92-year-old nun - "a tiny nun, so dear, she came up to me and said, `Can you do the show at our mother house?' " (O'Neill is determined to make this work.)

While O'Neill finds much to relate to in both her role and her audience, Sister is just one of a wide range of characters she has played over the years - from an Orthodox Jewish mother to the drag role of the title character's husband in "Lypsinka is Harriet Craig." "I've also been confused with drag queens because I'm a big woman," she said. "I'm 6 feet tall. With a wig and heels, too, I can be 6-foot-6. I met RuPaul at a party once and we were eye to eye."

For the past decade she's also been performing her own solo show in which she portrays a character named Dr. Julia Wonder," whom she describes as "a Las Vegas psychic - big tall blonde, Sixties retro clothes, big pumps." In April, after "Late Nite" ends its run, she'll head to Washington to film a mock documentary about Dr. Wonder.

"She is the polar opposite of Sister, and yet they do have something in common in that I address the audience face to face and I love doing that," she explained.

For now, however, she's "having a ball" playing Sister. "I've actually found my Sister here," O'Neill said. "She's sort of developed her own way of teaching catechism. She is a little bit demented about it. She does have the information from the media - what she gets from television, what she gets from newspapers. She interprets what she sees and puts it in a Catholic context, which really has its substance and base in the Sixties. She's an odd amalgam of the millennium and the Sixties."

How convincing is she? Nicholas A. Litrenta, president of Performing Arts Productions, which is presenting "Late Nite," was in the audience a few weeks after O'Neill came to Baltimore.

Also in the audience that night were a mother and three daughters, all alumnae of Catholic schools. "At the end of the show I absolutely had to convince one of the daughters that it was an actress," Litrenta recalled. "I said, `I'll take you backstage and you can see her in street clothes.'"

Show times at F. Scott Black's Theatre, 100 E. Chesapeake Ave., Towson, are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 1. Tickets are $19.50-$32.50.

Puzzling production

On the back of the program for its production of Brian Friel's "Faith Healer," Theatre Hopkins has printed a quiz. The 10 multiple-choice questions sound straightforward enough. But by the time the play is over, there appear to be multiple - and often conflicting - answers.

As to which answers are correct, well, based on the information supplied by the characters, it's difficult to tell. And that's Friel's point. Memory is malleable and fallible, and history is often in the mind of the beholder.

The history related here is that of Frank Hardy, a fictitious Irish faith healer who plied his trade primarily in Scotland and Wales, accompanied by his aristocratic-born wife, Grace, and Cockney manager, Teddy.

Friel structures his "Rashomon"-like drama, which played a pre-Broadway run starring James Mason at the Mechanic Theatre in 1979, in the form of four monologues. Frank starts and ends the evening, and Grace and Teddy each have their say in between.

Not a terribly dynamic format, it relies heavily on the prowess of the cast. Under the direction of Suzanne Pratt, the trio at Theatre Hopkins remain largely engaging, with newcomer Christine Glazier a charming standout as Frank's patient, devoted wife (or is she merely his mistress, as he insists?).

Friel leaves the circumstances of Frank's death a mystery until the end, but one thing that is never in doubt is that the man did possess a gift for healing - at least occasionally. It was a gift that perplexed Frank as much as any of his supplicants, and Robert Riggs poignantly conveys the anguish it caused him.

In contrast, J.R. Lyston's Teddy is a jovial sort, and his tales of the acts he managed before Frank - particularly a bagpipe-playing whippet - are the play's sole comic relief.

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