Throughout its 38 years of producing plays and musicals, INDEPENDENT PLAYERS has featured the works of many well-known late 20th Century playwrights. One such playwright, who was often considered but never produced to date, is Christopher Durang. Somehow, “one of the most explosively funny American dramatists” slipped through the cracks, but that is about to change with the first show of IP’s 39th Season.
Beginning Friday September 30th and continuing through Sunday, October 9th, IP will present what are perhaps Durang’s two most recognized plays—The Actor’s Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. The production stars Bethany Evans, Jonathan Horn, Brian McLeod, Laura Schaefer and Kiara Wolfe. It will be presented at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division Street, Elgin. Curtain time is 8 PM Fridays and Saturdays and 3 PM Sundays.
In addition to these two favorites, others of his plays one might know are Beyond Therapy, A History of the American Film, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and (his most recent) Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, for which he won the Tony Award for best play in 2013.
He received Obie Awards for Sister Mary Ignatius and Bette and Boo as well. For an audience member who is unfamiliar with Durang’s plays, this double bill of Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius should provide an excellent glimpse into the world of Christopher Durang.
The Actor’s Nightmare, which opens the evening, is based on a dream, which many professional and amateur actors have had, in which they must go on stage in a play they have never rehearsed. George wanders onto an empty stage not sure how he got there. The stage manager tells him he’s the understudy for an actor who’s been in an accident and must go on momentarily. She pushes him onto the stage dressed as Hamlet and he finds himself with an actress in a scene from Noel Coward’s Private Lives. He struggles to “play” the scene, but when she exits, he is joined by an actor who is speaking Shakespearean verse. Again, he tries to “play” the scene, but it is more difficult; then, suddenly, he finds himself alone to improvise a Shakespearean soliloquy. In the closing sections, he finds himself thrust into a Samuel Beckett play of which he has no knowledge. Finally, he’s Sir Thomas More in a historical drama which very well might be A Man for All Seasons facing beheading. Interestingly, in the final moments, he rises to the occasion and says the right lines whereupon make-believe gives way to reality. When the ax finally falls, Durang has managed to present the worst kind of nightmare imaginable (for any actor) in a delightfully bizarre, frantic and zany romp from start to finish.
In Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, the audience is brought into the world of Sister Mary Ignatius, a teaching nun who is much concerned with sin in all its various forms and she delivers a cautionary lecture to “her charges”—which includes the audience. One of them, a precocious little boy named Thomas, can quote the Ten Commandments on cue; when he does so, she rewards him with a cookie. When several of her former students turn up (unexpectedly?) and present a pageant which they’d performed in her class in 1959, she is, at first, very pleased. When she questions them about their adult lives, however, she learns very quickly that they did not come with the intention of making her feel proud of the avenues down which their lives have gone in the years after they left her class. Their real world lives do not concur with the views of Sister Mary Ignatius and she makes that very clear by the time the curtain falls.
As Frank Rich (New York Times) said in his review: “Only a writer of real talent can write an angry play that remains funny and controlled even in the most savage moments. Sister Mary Ignatius confirms Christopher Durang as such a writer… [This is his] most consistently clever and deeply felt work yet. It has the sting of revenge drama, even as it rides waves of demonic laughter. Even after Sister Mary’s real personality is revealed, she still remains all too frighteningly human.’’
In general, Durang deals critically with both serious and comic issues which are particularly important to him. While his use of parody and criticism of many social institutions might appear overly cynical at times, he explains: “… when I say everyone is crazy that means it’s a very bad day where the amount of crazy people in the world has spread out to the entire universe and it doesn’t seem possible to cope with anything…. actually, I think we’re all neurotic. And I think relationships are certainly difficult. Nonetheless, those lines in the play do get a laugh, so there’s something. It’s not as despairing as it sounds, but I don’t not believe it.”