Better Marry Than Be Damned

By Geary Danihy

There’s something about shared misery that evokes, in retrospect, an odd element of pleasure. Anyone who has been in the military understands this, for reminiscences at any gathering of ex-servicemen and women will inevitably turn to tales of boot camp, basic training or Beast Barracks. The bad old days, over time, take on an amber glow.

Thus explains, at least for those who attended Catholic schools, the frisson that runs through the audience as a door opens at Long Wharf’s Stage II and in strides Sister in full habit – white coif, wimple, black veil and tunic – and immediately commands the “class” to settle down.

Nonnie Newton-Breen is back again as the redoubtable nun in charge of catechism class, this time, in ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Night Catechism 3, to discuss the sacraments of Marriage and what used to be called Extreme Unction or Last Rites but, in a kinder, gentler (and more euphemistic) age, now goes by the name of Anointing of the Sick.

Many in the audience, by a show of hands requested by Sister, had attended previous “classes,” so they well knew the fate that befalls those who arrive late to “class” (would that all shows handle late-comers in such a manner), chew gum, show any type of public display of affection or wear clothing that reveals more than Sister might find acceptable (which means all skin not covering the face or hands).


Much of the pleasure of this and previous Late Night Catechisms is derived from Newton-Breen’s witty ad-libbing as she works the audience, often marching up the aisles to collect a pack of gum or award a prize to someone who has correctly answered a question. As Sister, Newton-Breen has all of the mannerisms down pat – she knows how to scold with a look, demand a “student” turn over a pack of gum with a rigid outstretched hand and command all to answer her in unison.

Newton-Breen also understands that many nuns, at least those who taught in schools several decades ago, had a certain earnest naïveté that bordered on childishness. Hence the bad religious jokes (Sister tells one about a man going to confession after years of backsliding), the odd enthusiasms and a willingness to take on faith certain things that normal people would find suspect – Jesus appearing in a bag of Cheetos (he is called “Cheesus”) or Dick Cheney being abducted by aliens (well, maybe some things are more believable than others).

The main thrust of the scripted part of the evening is a discussion of the Sacrament of Marriage, which Sister deals with, in the first act, via a diagram on the blackboard that outlines the nature of a good Catholic marriage – what fills the span between marriage and death is a series of child bearing and child rearing moments interspersed with a lot of arguments about money. In the second act, Sister has the audience play a compatibility game, a hilariously twisted version of The Newlywed Game that, in itself, was rather weird.

Always alert for moments when she can diverge from the script to kid, chide or upbraid a “student,” Newton-Breen has the audience in the palm of her hand as she evokes, for many, a time when the sound of a “clicker” commanded that you stand, sit or kneel and a ruler measured out more than mere inches. Although the evening can be enjoyed regardless of your religious background, those who never fell under the sway of a “penguin” might wonder what some of the nervous laughter is all about. Go out for a couple of drinks after the show with some parochial school veterans and they will be happy to tell you.
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‘Til Death Do Us Part runs through Sunday, Aug. 16. For tickets or more information call 787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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