Sister Judy

Jenny Wasko-Paterson as Sister Judy Credit: David Cooper
Jenny Wasko-Paterson as Sister Judy
Credit: David Cooper

At the Arts Club Revue Stage until March 21, 2015

Posted March 6, 2015

Writer/actor/director Shawn Macdonald humanizes Sister Judy (Jenny Wasko-Paterson) and Father Frank (Mike Wasko) in his new play, Sister Judy, subtitled A Love Story. It’s less about Catholicism – although there is some passionate debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus Christ – and more about love in all its manifestations: maternal and paternal love for children, platonic love, romantic love and love of God. In his programme notes, Macdonald writes, “I’m just interested in trying to figure out what [love] is.”

Sister Judy seems to have no problem knowing what love is; for her, it’s all about loving God. She unwaveringly believes in the existence of Jesus Christ as a historical figure and that’s the way she frames her lectures to her university students. The Bible is not, according to her, symbolic or metaphorical and she’s firm in her belief that the gospels were actually written by Jesus’ disciples. We do not get the feeling that Sister Judy – a published scholar of some reputation – has done her homework, however. Either that or she has already rejected all other, contradictory scholarship. She refuses to accept, for example, that there is a parallel virgin birth in Egyptian mythology that predates by several thousand years the birth of Christ. Sister Judy is unshakeable and constant in her belief.

Father Frank, on the other hand, is beginning to have doubts. A longtime colleague, friend – and drinking partner – of Judy’s, he is hungry for romance. He’s tired, he says, of masturbating – an admission that shocks Judy. She accuses him of just being ‘”horny” and suggests he talk to someone in the Church. When next we see him, he’s wearing tight jeans to the complete dismay of Sister Judy, and it seems he’s made a decision.

The beginning of Sister Judy is as comfortable as chicken soup: these are two very decent, very engaging characters who, on Fridays after their classes, share shots of single malt Scotch but only after Sister Judy reads, somewhat flippantly, about “the Saint of the Day” and then it’s bottoms-up.

Mike Wasko Credit: David Cooper
Mike Wasko
Credit: David Cooper

Nice people. Hard-working teachers. Friends.

Everything changes when Ruth, a troubled student with a chip on her shoulder, arrives. And Macdonald’s play then takes off in some very surprising directions.

It’s a great pleasure to see Wasko and Wasko-Paterson, partners in real life, on stage together; the warmth they generate permeates the play. Sister Judy’s arc is huge and Wasko-Paterson guides us confidently, engagingly through it. Even as Judy is opening a second bottle of wine, Wasko-Paterson, thankfully, doesn’t stagger or stumble but simply begins to reveal more and more about her past – details the character would not ordinarily share but with the help of wine – in vino veritas – she opens up. And, like Jericho, the walls come tumbling down.

Wasko’s Father Frank doesn’t have as far to go but throughout his character’s crisis of faith, Wasko keeps him grounded and real – the kind of guy you’d imagine having a beer or going fishing with.

Lili Beaudoin Credit: David Cooper
Lili Beaudoin
Credit: David Cooper

Being Ruth is a breakthrough role for Lili Beaudoin whom I first saw as a shy toddler in a Leaky Heaven production years ago at The Cultch. The daughter of actors Manon Beaudoin and Colin Heath, she is a recent graduate of Studio 58 and already a Bard on the Beach star (as Miranda in The Tempest and Mustard Seed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) last season. In Sister Judy, however, she shows greater range than ever before. Ruth is wounded, confused and ultimately explosive in this play and Beaudoin takes her through all these stages with tremendous confidence.

Under Patrick McDonald’s direction, Sister Judy avoids the pitfalls of what, in less experienced hands, could become melodramatic, even maudlin. Eight years in the writing, Sister Judy is Shawn Macdonald’s best play to date. As Sister Judy tells her students on their first day back at school, “Love is the most important thing ever.” More of it would go a long way and we can probably expect this playwright to continue looking for answers.