Oh, my sister. Say a little prayer for the audience at “Late Nite Catechism” at the Hoogland Center for the Arts this Sunday afternoon. This long-running comedy and participatory theater takes viewers, wistfully or fearfully, back to the children they once were. The sister teaches a catechism class to a room full of students, who are actually the audience. The show was written in 1993, and popular Chicago actress Mary Zentmyer played the role for 26 years.
This will be the third time HCFTA has brought Zentmyer as a sister to the arts center, said Gus Gordon, executive director. “We presented ‘Late Nite Catechism’ in 2016 and the sequel, ‘Sister’s Christmas Catechism’, in 2017. Both productions were huge hits for Hoogland. The shows have toured the country with different artists, but Mary has really touched our local audience. They love her and she is a riot. She is so quick-witted and funny as a sister.
“There is a large Catholic community in central Illinois,” Gordon continued, “and this show reminds them all of their days in Catholic school. The nuns and priests we had in the audience often laugh the loudest. But that doesn’t mean it’s a show that only Catholics will find funny. People of all faiths find this show hilarious.
During the play, Sister goes from being a compassionate instructor rewarding “students” for correct answers with items such as glow-in-the-dark rosaries and laminated holy cards to being an authoritative instructor. These abrupt swings may strike a chord among those who have survived the ups and downs of going to school with an all-knowing authoritarian at the head of the class.
The role of Sister, Zentmyer said, appealed to her with its comedic take on religion, and the show was funny but not disrespectful.
“Having been raised Catholic with a great-aunt who was a Sister of Providence and a great-uncle who was a Passionist father, I knew I had the background for this. I grew up with an Irish Catholic mother and am the baby of six children. I always wanted to be a teacher, so this acting role made that dream come true with no lesson plan to do. … Being raised Catholic, taking CCD classes in primary school, and being taught by the Sisters of St. Francis School at Alvernia Secondary School in the northwest Chicago prepared me for this role.
Zentmyer appreciates the Sister’s pragmatic approach to everything. “Rules are rules, to be followed. Period. The sister is tough but never mean. She’s down to earth, feisty, fair, funny, yet strict and tough – all qualities needed when you have 50+ students to teach in a class. There were no teacher’s assistants – just a nun.
You don’t have to be Catholic to “get it,” Zentmyer said.
“You had one or two strict teachers, I’m sure, whatever school you attended. You’ll find it even funnier if you went to Catholic school and remember the nuns. In this scripted but somewhat improvised play, the audience becomes part of the cast called upon to answer pop quiz questions and share stories if they wish. “You will laugh and you will hear other stories of nun memories from your classmates or stories of rule. Some of the funniest moments are the true stories that audience members share.
“There’s a reason people keep coming back to the sister class,” Zentmyer added, “laughter is the best medicine. Come learn something and hear stories about these hardworking, selfless women who taught us, shaped us, and prepared us for a prosperous future. Come throw a few bucks in the basket after class, and it will go straight to real retired nuns, who took a vow of poverty and kept you in line all those years ago.
‘Late Night Catechism’
When: 2 p.m. July 31
Where: Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St., Springfield
More information: Visit www.hcfta.org or call 217-523-2787