The image of habit-clad nuns dispensing both wisdom and discipline by rapping rulers on students’ knuckles is an iconic one that spurs mostly humorous and affectionate memories from those who attended Catholic schools.
Yet since the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council modernization efforts in the 1960s and a decline in vocations over the last few decades, many parochial schools are now run by laypersons or by nuns who no longer wear habits. Those wishing to relive the days of yore while enjoying a hearty dose of laughs can head over to the Sierra Madre Playhouse through Oct. 1 for the play “Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3.”
The show is one of six sequels to the 1993 play “Late Nite Catechism” by Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade, in which a fictitious Catholic nun takes the stage and interacts with audience members as if they were members of her religion class.
This edition finds Sister having fun with the topics of marriage and last rites, but actress Aubrey Manning assures Catholics that it’s good-natured and distinctly different from the disrespectful tone of the notorious play “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.”
“Since doing this show, I’ve been very conscious of mean-spirited humor towards Catholics and religious people, so I’m very careful of people who try to make Catholicism and other religions the butt of jokes,” said Manning, who has been playing Sister for nearly 20 years. “If you want me to lose my smile, make a joke about priests’ relationship with children. There’s no need to do that, and it alienates everybody.”
The original “Catechism” was an instant sensation, with co-writer Maripat Donovan originating the role of Sister and earning a nomination for the Outer Critics Circle Award in New York for outstanding solo performance. She also won the Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle Award for Best Solo Performance in 1999.
Manning attended Catholic schools herself while growing up in Richmond, Virginia, and is one of five actresses currently playing Sister in “Late Nite” productions nationwide. That educational background is vital, because while the show follows a “curriculum” that outlines major topics with humorous lines, audience responses to the questions are always unpredictable and require fast-thinking replies that are both funny and accurate.
“You never know what somebody’s going to say and that to me is the fun part, so the more people I bring onstage, the more fun I have,” explained Manning, who maintains the “Catechism” tradition of collecting donations for the care of retired nuns after each show. “I see who gives fun answers in the first half and then bring two couples onstage in the second half to compete giving answers like the ‘Newlywed Game,’ though it could be a couple on a first date, newly married folks or people married 60 years.”
Landing the role of Sister changed Manning’s life dramatically, allowing her to focus on acting full-time after years of also working as a theatrical agent and casting director in Seattle, where she and her family moved after the Northridge earthquake destroyed their Los Angeles home in 1994.
“When I first started doing the show, I split performances with the woman who wrote it and when I wasn’t onstage, I watched in the audience, took notes and recorded everything,” said Manning. “I also studied world religions, but I found the humor comes out of finding the truth not just in religion but everything in life.
“I never make fun of Catholicism, other religions or other people, but rather find what’s humorous in a situation,” she continued. “If people find going to confession something that’s unusual because they’re not Catholic, I explain it. But sometimes it’s just funny to hear what people confess.”
“Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3” opened at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre at 8 p.m. Sept. 22 and runs through Oct. 1. Tickets are $23-$32. Call (626) 355-4318 or visit sierramadreplayhouse.org.