Marty Isaacs Wayman and Patricia O’Neill remember a little girl who was always backstage at their first production of “Nunsense,” at Studio Players in 1990: Jessica Pearl French.
“Her mother was on the piano for all those productions, Karen French,” says Wayman, who played Sister Mary Hubert in that show and in a 1991 followup. “Jessica was backstage at 5 years old, and she has perfect pitch, and we’d come off and she’d say, ‘You’re sharp,’ and we’d say, ‘Oh, please don’t let me hit a 5-year-old.’ But really, she’s part of the family.”
French grew up to be Sister Mary Hubert in the Woodford Theatre’s current production of “Nunsense,” which opened last weekend and runs through Feb. 19.
Once again, Wayman and O’Neill are on board the Little Sisters of Hoboken train, Wayman directing the show and O’Neill in her familiar role as Mother Superior, aka Reverend Mother Regina. The pair teamed up on two successive productions of the original show in 1990 and ’91 and a revival in 2002, then “Nunsense II: The Second Coming” in 1993. Each has had other encounters with the show, including O’Neill playing the Reverend Mother in a production in Winchester, and Wayman taking on the same role for the Maysville Players.
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“I’ve never done any other role in this particular show,” O’Neill says. “I’ve done many, many other shows. So I don’t know that I’m particularly attracted to Mother Superior other than she was always what I was.”
If you go see them and they’re two-dimensional, and it looks like a bunch of actresses up there, then you have totally missed the mark.
Marty Isaacs Wayman, ‘Nunsense’ director
Wayman, who says O’Neill is her best friend, has had the chance to watch the actor’s portrayal of Reverend Mother evolve over the years.
“The key word is play to your age,” Wayman says. “She is 67 years old. She takes her time. She is a wiser and more loving Mother Superior, as opposed to a more strict and stringent Mother Superior. You can tell she is one who has been around longer and seen more of the world, I think, and it’s made her wiser. And she doesn’t mind rolling around the floor some.”
That specific scene is toward the end of the show’s first act, when a drug has been found in the locker of one of the students at the school, and the Reverend Mother unwittingly falls under its influence.
It’s a set-up for comic bits and musical numbers — many musical theater homages — but the plot of “Nunsense” is that the nuns we see are trying to raise money after a tragic food poisoning case killed 52 members of their order. All of the nuns have been buried except the last four, who are in the freezer, because the Reverend Mother used the money for burying them to buy a new plasma screen TV for the convent — in earlier versions, it was a video cassette recorder and camera. Five of the 19 surviving nuns are putting on a variety show to raise the burial money, often using audience participation, including a Bible quiz.
One of the moments when O’Neil can see that her performance has evolved is when her charges remind her that she was the one who blew the burial money on a TV.
“Of course, it’s a silly, silly plot,” O’Neill says. “But the truth is all of these women, who were her sisters that she was responsible for, died. I find it particularly powerful when Sister Hubert turns to me and says, ‘You’re the one who bought the plasma TV before the last four were buried, and we had to put them in the freezer,’ and it really hurts me. I think, I don’t want them in the freezer. Before, it was funny. It’s not funny this time around.”
That goes to one of Wayman’s major beliefs about “Nunsense,” that for the show to be successful, people need to be convinced that they are really seeing nuns, not actors playing nuns.
“If you go see them and they’re two-dimensional, and it looks like a bunch of actresses up there, then you have totally missed the mark,” Wayman says. “That doesn’t mean that they have to look shoddy, but you want them to look like nuns.”
The script is written with a lot of irreverence — there’s no doubt about it. But you can’t offend somebody’s personal faith. That’s not what we’re here for.
Marty Isaacs Wayman, ‘Nunsense’ director
She sees that in this production’s performance by Melissa Rae Wilkeson, who joined Wayman and O’Neill for the 2002 “Nunsense” revival and is again reprising her role as Sister Robert Anne.
“She has a stronger sense of faith,” Wayman says of Wilkeson, “particularly when she talks about her story about coming up through St. Claire’s School for the Deplorables and what keeps her rooted in the church.
“You have to remember these are nuns, and that their faith is genuine.”
Wayman and O’Neill say they get their biggest laughs from Catholics and real-life priests and nuns who come see the show. There is plenty of poking fun at the church and some of its traditions and foibles. She says a puppet routine played by Madeline Williamson as Sister Mary Amnesia is probably the most envelope-pushing moment in the show, but it remains respectful.
“There are lines you don’t cross,” Wayman says of the show and the production’s approach to the Catholic faith. “The script is written with a lot of irreverence — there’s no doubt about it. But you can’t offend somebody’s personal faith. That’s not what we’re here for.”
What they are there for is to tell a fun story, and maybe build the family and pass on the tradition. Wayman mentions Williamson and Kelli Jo Crawford, who plays Sister Mary Leo, as new faces in the fold bringing their talents and adding new dimensions to “Nunsense.”
Asked whether she would be up for another “Nunsense,” O’Neill, a proud 67-year-old, says, “Probably not. I think I need old-lady roles now, like ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’ More sedate, though I do love physical comedy. I feel like I’m channeling Lucille Ball. What would she do here? She’d make a big face and stomp those grapes.”
Who knew nuns and Lucy had so much in common?