Dallas — Four bouncing, bright-eyed girls in plaid jumpers and saddle Oxfords plop down at their desks and get ready for another browbeating from the nasty nuns in a parochial school in Yonkers in the early 1960s. Poor darlings. By the time we’ve followed them from first through eighth grade, and witnessed every ear twist, face slap and insult the sadistic nuns have tucked up their headpieces, we’re relieved the girls are finally escaping this dreary classroom. We certainly feel their pain—it’s tough on everybody to be scolded for nearly two hours.
Catholic School Girls, Casey Kurtti’s 1987 play about parochial education in the early 60s, is a sometimes funny, sometimes brutal and sometimes clichéd collection of sketches about growing up female and Catholic, fretting about hell and worrying if wearing go-go boots will send you there. Year after year goes by, noted by a student scribbling 1963 or 1965 on the blackboard, and the president’s picture changing from JFK to LBJ, but there’s no clear thematic arc linking the their experiences together.
The girls share a first communion, and everybody has to do a paper on their favorite saint, but they don’t share their deepest thoughts with each other, which might have made this a stronger play about friendship. Between classroom giggles and recitations, each girl delivers a heartfelt monologue to the audience, ranging from an aggressive wish that all the nuns would end up in intensive care to a handwringer about a jealous, controlling father.
The fun and strength of the show is in Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' extraordinary cast and Susan Sargeant’s astute direction that puts us in the time and place quickly, and evokes the sense of energetic, curious girls being squeezed into a pre-formed shape, sobbing quietly at a desk or bowing their heads reflexively when they say “Jesus.” Rodney Dobbs’ set with desks and blackboards on the stage and large stained glass windows overhead is especially fun because we’re seeing a church within the renovated church which houses the theater.
Catherine B. DuBord, Anastasia Muñoz, Barrett Nash and Marilyn Setu are the four friends, donning a wimple and doubling as the nun teaching a particular grade. Each actress finds a way to make her character—and her nasty nun—distinctive, and each has some wonderfully dramatic moments.
DuBord, whose portrayal of a bright, eager child who gradually loses her faith to the bigotry and hypocrisy of her education, is the closest character, perhaps, to the point of view of the playwright. She’s regularly told that “the Jews killed Jesus,” but soon figures out the accusation is just more ugly dogma thrown in her face when she tells her teacher that “Jesus was a Jew.” But despite DuBord’s valiantly angry monologue when she confronts God about taking her grandmother from her, the play as written leaves us up in the air about this girl’s crisis of faith.
Setu is touching as the confused and frightened girl with an abusive father, one moment pulling herself together to stand up to him, and the next seemingly admiring her strong parent for yelling at a boy who likes her. This character is a story in and of itself, but it’s not told in this play.
Nash is the funny and buoyant smarty-pants of the class, always ready to recite her catechism and even good at math. But she’s not always the goodie-good, and gets caught doing the Twist on a desktop. The funniest bit in the show is Nash’s gently humorous embodiment of kindly, dotty old Sister Mary Agnes, reminiscing in gaga land about an old boyfriend before she became a bride of Christ.
Muñoz is a touching tough girl, haltingly recalling the humiliation of starting her period in class, and enduring a public lecture on feminine hygiene. Tall and strident in her carriage, Muñoz is forceful and fierce as the cruel Sister Mary Lucille, a woman who appears to take unusual personal pleasure in punishing her charges.
Catholic School Girls is a great chance to see four delightful actresses at work—and for women who went to parochial school, the show is sure evoke some bittersweet memories. For good measure, the director has provided a wooden ruler, printed with the play’s title, to remind each of us what happens if you stand up without permission. Smack!