By Lynn Venhaus

A social satire is not fulfilling its goal if it doesn’t outrage somebody, and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” is certainly provocative.

Stray Dog Theatre’s production pushes buttons, even though the show is now 43 years old. Wickedly funny, bold and acrimonious, the company wisely played it straight.

But you won’t find protesters outside Tower Grove Abbey. This time at least. Stray Dog Theatre isn’t a group that shies away from controversial subject matter and has presented bold and unconventional fare before. (For instance, this year alone, Charles Busch’s campy satire “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” was the June show).

Christopher Durang’s watershed 1979 play takes aim at Roman Catholic dogma, and specifically, a rigid teaching nun for her over-reaching and unchecked abuse of power.

For his absurdist comedy, he mocked the nuns as authority figures. Apparently, he had a lot of anger from being raised Catholic. With identity and sexual disorientation being among his frequent themes, of course he channeled it all in this script.

As a graduate of Our Lady of Peace School in Providence, New Jersey, Durang no doubt stored material as he matriculated there, and went on to Harvard and Yale School of Drama. He also won the Obie Award for Best Playwright in 1980, at age 32, for this work. (Much later, he won a Tony for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in 2012).

“Sister Mary Ignatius” brought him to national prominence and raised the ire of St. Louis Catholics. If you think Billy Joel’s song “Only the Good Die Young” caused a ruckus in the St. Louis Archdiocese in 1977, well they went ballistic when the Theatre Project Company announced they would be presenting the black comedy in 1983. Thirty years ago, the archbishop condemned it, and protests ensued.

But these days, after years of clergy being unfavorably in the spotlight, and nuns as characters in both comedies and dramas, “Sister Mary Ignatius” isn’t the lightning rod it once was. And Catholics have other things more pressing to worry about – although being traumatized by a religious order should remain high on the list.

The one-act starts out with a conventional structure but then meltdowns begin. Sister Mary Ignatius, played with utmost conviction by Sarajane Clark, is still teaching children about the perils of sin and hellfire when several alumni – mostly hot messes — come for a visit. When she finds out how far these members of her flock have strayed from the path of righteousness, well let’s just say there are some shocking consequences.

Tables turn, and it isn’t pretty. Director Gary F. Bell stages it as an absurdist horror film.

Rachel Bailey is the emotionally wounded Diane Symonds, who threatens Sister’s life. Eileen Engel is Philomena, an unwed mother, Stephen Henley is Gary, polite and gay, with Sean Seifert as Aloysius, a troubled alcoholic. They’re all genuine on stage, veterans that they are.

Sister’s obedient little Thomas is played with poise by youngster Tommy Pepper, who misses the violence on stage.

Anyone who went to a parochial school will be reminded of catechism teachings and how rigid certain nuns were.

Sister Mary Ignatius is an extreme example, but there are nuggets of truth in this mischievous manifesto. The sharp satire makes for some uncomfortable and awkward moments, so folks are warned in case there would be triggers.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” for mature audiences Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Nov. 30 – Dec. 16. For tickets or for more information, visit

All photos by John Lamb

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