BWW Review: SISTERS OF PEACE at History Theatre
Do you find it hard to imagine how to engage, directly but civilly, with people who hold views you emphatically oppose? If so, make a beeline for History Theater in Saint Paul to see SISTERS OF PEACE. This new play models that very thing several times, even within a nuclear family.
It's one of the ways that the play is immediately topical. Another is to track the way rage born of childhood trauma can be, with time and determination, transformed into righteous anger that fuels social activism.
SISTERS OF PEACE tells the story of four remarkable local women, the McDonald sisters. Mainstays in local activist circles, they have been working on behalf of peace and social justice for the past 50 years. For decades, they helped keep the weekly Wednesday night protests on the Lake Street Bridge going. Remarkably, despite being in their 80s and 90s, all four were in attendance opening night.
Among 11 siblings born on a Minnesota farm in the 1920s and 1930s, these four chose to become nuns, entering the convent under the strict rules in place before the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s. Thereafter, they left their habits behind, and--each in her own way--evolved into non-violent activists practicing civil disobedience. They anchored regular protests here in the Twin Cities against bomb manufacturing and for peace, racking up multiple arrests and building relationship with local police. They traveled to Georgia to protest the School of the Americas, which trained those responsible for the extrajudicial killings of Archbishop Oscar Romero and others in the dirty war in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s. Eventually they also confronted the church on its stance toward LGBTQ people.
The four seasoned actors playing the sisters--all of whom started working on the stage when they would have been called actresses--differentiate their personalities clearly. Rita (Wendy Lehr), the oldest, holds the record for arrests and is indefatigable: she chafes when cancer treatments keep her from protests. Kate (Katherine Ferrand) is more timid and deeply empathic. Brigid (Peggy O'Connell) has reason for rage and helps the others understand this can be righteous. Jane (Sue Scott), the youngest of all 11 Macdonald kids, is the first to get political, and her decision to enter the convent gives us the clearest view we get of the McDonald parents.
All other roles are played by four additional actors, each of whom covers multiple parts. Most remarkable is the young Annick Dall, who powerfully channels each sister in her younger form, as well as embodying characters as varied as a sunny protester and an addict in withdrawal. Ben Shaw plays their brother KJ as a young man, a Korean war vet and combat photographer. He also brings gawky charm to the role of a nephew facing the draft during the Viet Nam years, and a vitriolic heckler post 9/11. Melinda Kordich plays the devout farm mother of the sisters, the infamous Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, and others. Veteran actor Terry Hempleman takes on the role of Dad, tiptoes near caricature in playing the Pope, and embodies KJ in his later years, when he has strong conservative views as a mayor and eventually a state representative.
For me, the most engaging scenes were those where an aging sister meets up with her younger self. This may say more about me than the play since I resonate more to exploration of psychological development than to Catholicism or activism, but it's also true that theater based in realism is simply more adept at depicting relationships between individuals than it is at illuminating religion or politics.
History Theater has commissioned more than 80 original plays and musicals over the last 20 years. During Artistic Director Ron Peluso's tenure, 45% of those commissions have gone to women playwrights, a remarkable statistic by comparison with the norms in American regional theater. This commission went to Doris Baizley and was directed by Barbra Berlovitz. They use humor and song as they hopscotch through history with the help of projections. The story telling is always clear.
I applaud History Theater for its efforts to shed light on lesser known true stories and build community as it holds fast to a distinct mission in the busy Twin Cities theater scene. From January to June this year, it's rebranding itself Herstory Theatre and producing original plays that center women's lives. SISTERS OF PEACE is the second in this series. First was STEWARDESS, which managed to be a romp while teaching a ton about how women working in the airline industry have fought for equal rights over the past 50+ years. Next up is DIRTY BUSINESS: THE SPY MUSICAL which promises to feature four women's lives from the World War II era.
SISTERS OF PEACE played to a full house on opening night. It's a long show, running a full two acts with intermission. Group tickets are available. It runs through April 14.
Photo credit: Scott Pakudaitis