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One-woman play lifts the spirits

Late Nite Catechism is basically a two-hour stand-up comedy routine with one character -- an Irish Catholic nun with attitude. Amazingly, it maintains a rollicking pace and provides enough good belly laughs to send the audience home wishing for more.

Don't feel you need to be Catholic to understand the humor -- this Southern Baptist has never comprehended the mystique of Catholic school or any of its accompanying folklore, and found Late Nite Catechism to be a very good primer.

But Maripat Donovan's remarkably well-written play is about more than just Catholicism. As Sister puts it, it's about "the cultural Catholicism that binds us all together." That culture appears to include our narcissism, our vulnerability, our collective guilt and our all too easily manipulated faith in a power bigger than ourselves.

For instance: Why, asks Sister, would the Catholic church elevate to sainthood a woman with eating disorders who ate her own vomit? In one sequence, the audience is asked to participate in a thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating of various saints. St. Veronica of the Eating Disorders gets a distinct thumbs-down, as does St. Simon Stylites, the patron saint of pole sitters. "The list of saints has grown to more than 75,000," says Sister, "including St. Ursula and the 1,000 martyrs. We don't know their names, but I'm pretty sure none of them were named Tiffany."

Audience participation is key to the experience of Late Night Catechism. The play starts with Sister admonishing the audience, "Let's simmer down here... How many of you attended Catholic schools?" she asks, scanning the crowd for hands. "The rest of you must be publics," she says dismissively. "Too bad your parents didn't care about you."

As Sister, New Orleans actress Amanda Hebert handles the crowd masterfully. Winner of the 1995 Jay Leno Comedy Search, she has a booming voice and a commanding presence. "This is not a drive-in movie," she scolds a man who has his arm around his partner's shoulders. "Better leave some space for the holy spirit up there." When one audience member is scolded for the length of her skirt and goes down on her knees to have it measured with Sister's handy ruler, she gets a lecture on decorum. "Think of your soul as a beautiful white dress you can wear to God's party," she says, "with simple white pumps."

The Bible lessons are particularly fun. "Did Jesus ever misbehave?" the audience is prompted and we're reminded of the temple incident at age 12. "Mary was worried sick," says Sister. "You didn't hear about him again until he was 30, did you? I think he was grounded from age 12 until he was 30 for giving his mother a heart attack."

Irish jokes abound. "Did you know Jesus was Irish?" Sister asks. The research proves it, she says. "One: He lived with his mother until he was 30. Two: He went out with 12 buddies every night. Three: His mother thought he walked on water."

On a slightly more serious note, after the play ended, Amanda Hebert made a fund-raising appeal to the audience. In every city where Late Nite Catechism plays (it has been staged steadily for eight years in Chicago), a community of retired nuns is identified for help. Because the Catholic Church did not pay the tax for many years, most retired sisters in America do not receive Social Security. The Colorado Springs run of Late Nite Catechism will donate funds to the elderly sisters of Benet Hill and Mt. St. Francis. Hebert took up the donation herself, offering a hearty handshake and a big smile to every departing audience member. From the looks of the donation basket, people were more than happy to give.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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