Comedy with a brain

Human Race Theatre presents ‘Hail Mary!’

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo:Claire Kennedy as Mary and Jennifer Dorr White as Mother Regina Marie in Human Race Theatre’s ‘Hail Mary!’; photos: Scott J. Kimmins

Who says you can’t laugh and think at the same time?

Tom Dudzick’s play is about Mary, a young teacher with hopes of becoming a nun, who can’t  accept all the answers in the “Baltimore Catechism.” Instead, she encourages her third-graders to ask the hard questions about God. She is compelled to disagree with punitive answers that make the children fearful. Mother Regina has other ideas.

To add to the challenge, a late arriving dad, more than disorganized, stumbles in at the last minute of parent teacher night. Surprise. It’s Mary’s old boyfriend, Joe, now the widowed father of a very reluctant student who still misses his mom.

When Mary assures the children that God’s feelings can’t be hurt, waves of consequences occur. Sister Felicia, after some hesitation, becomes a friend and a cohort. Father Stanley, unwell in several ways, delivers truth and reality—and a very fine comedy turn.

Director Margarett Perry has just the right touch: she finds actors’ comedic talents and encourages them to explore and polish them. She also mines the depths with them to find the spiritual essentials of a life.

“The combination asks us to look at how things are and how they have been. Change is so difficult,” Perry says.

Is it all right to encourage kids to think, to question authority? Are right and wrong absolutes?

Claire Kennedy brings her comedian side to Mary, imbuing her with nervous energy that balances her certainty that we should not teach an intolerant God. With delightful skill she shows a more firm capacity than as the very fragile Laura in last season’s Human Race production of “Glass Menagerie.”

Joshua Levine, as the newly reconnected Joe, brings enormous energy and physical comedy as well as convincing depth to his character. He’s very concerned about the education of his never-seen young son. Still in love with his high school sweetheart, Mary, he has to accept with grace Mary’s eventual decisions. Levine’s first scene was charming and audience-pleasing. He received an unexpected round of applause at his exit.

Andrea Morales plays Sister Felicia, who moves from utterly conventional and dogmatic to questioning, to actually enjoying her teaching and believing her class should be allowed to speak honestly. She goes from being a properly nun-clad to a basketball coach in shorts, building a character we would like to think could actually exist. She’s more and more flexible, until she and her basketball erupt on stage, exhibiting another wonderful comedy talent.

Jennifer Dorr White is Mother Regina Marie, school principal who slips into unusually human responses occasionally, despite her more austere intentions to teach as she was taught. It is a very tricky tight rope, but she walks it well. Her revelation of how she became a nun is a poignant moment, handled with just the right touch. Mother Regina is very earnest, reluctantly pulled into funny moments by Joe’s irreverence. He turns out to be related to her through his deceased wife.

Capping this ensemble that seems to have five nearly equal-actor opportunities to build memorable characters is Scott Stoney playing Father Stanley. The old priest is regarded as physically ill, as well as mentally unstable He is a man who likes to joke and play the fool, but he has a powerful story to tell. As a young priest, he counselled a couple with five children about being true to the Church’s teaching on birth control. Within the year, the young wife had died in labor. It is a truth about authority versus logic and common sense that he has never forgotten.

Stoney celebrates the 30th Anniversary of the Human Race by playing his 70th  role. He was one of its three founding members. He has always shown a talent that ranges from comedy, in all its forms, to more serious dramatic efforts.

“Heather Powell is the best property master in the business,” Director Perry comments. Heather spends hours creating such originals as durable donuts or meat pies in Sweeny Todd. She goes the extra mile for authenticity, searching Ebay and creating from wood, metal, or odd materials in her kitchen. That’s talent and devotion.

What Sound Designer Jay Brunner does is not always apparent. For instance, he wrote original music for the opening scene. Shen Mary nervously tries to neaten her classroom, flurrying back and forth obviously filled with anxiety, Brunner’s music reflects the mood. He is also credited with teaching Levine to play, sort of, an almost recognizable piece on the violin as if he had only had a week of study.

A year ago, Costume Designer Janet Powell was working with teeny-weeny, itty-bitty red bikinis for The Full Monty.  “Hail Mary!” called for costumes at the other end of the specurm. These days, very few religious orders wear full habiats but rather have a variety of mix-and-match apparel. This seems a simple acquisition, but at a pre-run “meet-n-greet,” Powell explained all the pieces and possibilities to combine for an authentic look.

Scenic Designer Eric Moore created the classic school room with eight-year-old size desks. Lighting Designer is John Rensel and Production Stage Manager, Lexi Muller.

You don’t have to be Catholic or religious to enjoy this fluff with Truth. “If you need a breath of fresh air,” Artistic Director Kevin Moore says, “this is the right show.”

Hail Mary! runs through Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Suite 300, in downtown Dayton. Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 15 and 16, 7 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, Nov. 17–19, 8 p.m.; ; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20. Tickets range from $25–$60. For tickets or more information, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit TicketCenterStage.com or HumanRaceTheatre.org.

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Jacqui Theobald
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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