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Theatre in Review: Sister Calling My Name (Blackfriars Repertory Theatre/Storm Theatre Company)

Caption: John Marshall, Susie Duecker. Photo: Michael Abrams.

Sister Calling My Name wants to tell an uplifting tale of the power of faith, but it is so overtaken by evasions and cosmetic touch-ups that the effect is spoiled. Buzz McLaughlin's script focuses on the redemptive power of love, but treats it as an easily applied balm, not the product of hard work and dedication. It's a remarkable case of a well-meaning playwright shooting himself in the foot.

The protagonist, Michael, is only in his early thirties, but he has racked up a lifetime of woe. His Minnesota youth was overshadowed by the presence of his older sister, Lindsey, who, early on, was diagnosed with severe mental retardation and schizophrenia. Lindsey was kept at home for a time, but on any given day she might be found covered in her own feces or bald, having ripped all the hair from her head. The constant stress drove Michael and Lindsey's father to the bottle and his mother to a series of debilitating, probably psychosomatic, diseases. Michael's adult years have been equally bleak: An academic, he has been denied tenure and his marriage has collapsed. John Marshall, who plays him, delivers most of this exposition lying down -- and, really, can you blame him?

Michael hasn't seen Lindsey in nearly two decades, so, after his hellish account of the family's past, her appearance comes as a surprise: Pert, put-together, and childlike, yet utterly placid, she spends her days busily turning out the paintings that are crucial to the plot. Somehow, Lindsey, who lives in a private institution for the developmentally disabled, is on the verge of becoming an art-world star, with shows planned for Chicago and New York. With a financial bonanza looming -- Lindsey could soon be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars -- Sister Anne Frances, who runs the home, keeps reaching out, via the phone, to Michael, insisting that, according to law, he must join the board of the trust being formed to handle Lindsey's income.

As it happens, Michael is under no legal obligation to do any such thing; Sister Anne's lie is a ruse designed to reunite the estranged siblings. And, for an unconscionably long time, Sister Anne holds back the truth about her identity: She was, previously, Michael's girlfriend; seventeen years later, she remains, for him, the one that got away. It's little wonder that her constant praise-the-lord assertions put him in an oppositional mood.

Sister Calling My Name is supposed to track the breakdown of Michael's profound cynicism and gradual embrace of Lindsey -- who, ironically, stands on the edge of wealth and fame while he is mired in failure and self-loathing. But McLaughlin's arguments are marked by bad faith. It doesn't help that Sister Anne is a such perky, one-note cheerleader for Christ; any nun worth her salt would have had enough training in pastoral care and psychology to acknowledge Michael's authentic pain -- and she would have helped him work through it before asking him to meet with the woman who triggers memories of his haunted youth. (Further, she might have recognized that, having previously broken his heart, she might not be the right candidate to melt it.) Instead, she repeatedly, cheerfully, nags him, wondering why he doesn't capitulate to her aggressive goodwill.

Sister Calling My Name would also have you believe that Sister Anne, having rescued Lindsey from horrific abuse in a Dickensian asylum, has effectively tamed her, using little more than the power of prayer, lightly applied; in addition, she discovers and guide's Lindsey's preternatural artistic skills. Such an assertion makes a mockery of the grindingly hard work required, daily, of caregivers, both professional and familial, in institutions religious or otherwise. The play blames Michael's parents for putting Lindsey away (and further traumatizing her), but it has nothing to say about a system that would leave a desperately afflicted child to be raised at home with little or no social or medical support. Morality is strictly personal in Sister Calling My Name: If you open your heart to God, it suggests, all your problems will magically disappear.

It is difficult for me to express how offensive this argument is -- all the more so for being made with such a sincere heart. But proceeding from such a false premise, Sister Calling My Name has nowhere to go but down. Under Peter Dobbins' direction, Marshall is such an authentically tortured presence that I'd like to see him again, under different circumstances; he has a lot to contend with, including a scene in which Michael, discovering that Lindsey has stabbed a doll in the stomach with a pair of scissors, practically has a nervous breakdown. (For a second, I thought she had killed a baby.) Despite the many gaps in the script -- for example, the lack of information about his troubled marriage and career -- he works hard and sometimes successfully to shape a character. What with her manipulations and lies, Sister Anne isn't easy to take, and it's no surprise that Susie Duecker can't do much to render her more palatable. Lindsey is an idea, not a character, but within the character's very narrow limits, Gillian Todd is solid.

The no-frills production design works well enough. Daniel Prosky's all-white set consists of three playing areas, a strategy that allows the action to move swiftly across several locations and back and forth in time. Michael Abrams' lighting, Jake Posner's costumes, and Ian Wehrle's sound design are all okay.

Interestingly, the play never stops to wonder if Michael -- a train wreck, by all accounts -- might best be kept from Lindsey, who, despite her longing, is thriving without him. But Sister Calling My Name is uninterested in such complications. They say God writes straight with crooked lines, but in this play, He employs an exceptionally neat cursive, perfect for delivering bromides and homilies. --David Barbour

(4 February 2020)

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