Late Nite Catechism
It's a perfect show for Greater Cincinnati theatregoers, where Roman Catholicism is practiced by lots of the local population. Many city residents have attended Catholic elementary and high schools for multiple generations. When "Sister" (Beth Ward) begins her evening's lesson, she asks how many in the audience attended a Catholic elementary school. At the performance I attended, nearly 80 percent of those in attendance raised their hands. While the production sets itself in the present moment with references to Lady Gaga and other contemporary cultural figures, it's clearly anchored in the childhoods of Baby Boomers whose enthusiasm for this show has already extended its run a week beyond its initial closing date in December. They were out in force on a Tuesday evening, ready to recollect their childhoods and dialogue with Ward in her stern but witty performance holding forth on all things Catholic.
Late Nite Catechism is part stand-up comedy and part improvisational theater, and Ward capably takes full advantage of both aspects. She walks onto the detailed classroom set (designed by Jennifer Rhodus)–blue-and-yellow checkerboard tiled floor, a black board, a cluttered desk, posters of presidents (with an oversized image of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first Catholic elected to the U.S. presidency) and saints–with a flourish, smacking a clipboard on top of a podium to get everyone's attention. As the audience, we are her students for an evening session of St. Bruno's Adult Catechism Class. She tells us it was supposed to be conducted by Fr. Murphy. He, however, has handed the task over to her so he can get to his poker night. And she's ready to educate us according to her sometimes off-kilter but always amusing insights into the Catholic faith.
Almost instantly, Sister is monitoring "student" behavior, warning people in the front rows to keep both feet on the floor, telling a husband with his arm around his wife to "unwrap yourselves" and handing a few tissues to a woman whose decolletage is a bit too revealing. She slips back and forth between her lessons about the legitimacy of certain saints, the meaning of various religious phenomena, rituals and practices, and calling on those in attendance to answer questions or recall why they were disciplined with a ruler during their elementary school education.
As the two-act evening wears on (the show runs 2:05 with an intermission), the class becomes more and more enthusiastically participatory, to the point that Sister has to occasionally rein in the hilarity to sustain the show's forward momentum. But a ringing cell phone or whispering to a seatmate invokes sharp reprimands, often followed by rewards of religious paraphernalia such as medallions, rosaries, plastic statues, and more.
Sister constantly reminds everyone that "Girls are good, boys are bad." She also draws distinctions between kids who attend Catholic school and the "publics," children whose parents don't really care about the moral training of their children. As a boy who attended public school, I'm afraid that lands me on nearly the bottom rung of Sister's approval scale. But even from that troubled perspective I was heartily entertained by Late Nite Catechism. For that, I bow my head and say, "Thank you, Sister."
Late Nite Catechism has been extended through December 23, 2023, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre, 962 Mt. Adams Circle, in Eden Park, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyplay.com or call 513-421-3888.