Battle Lines 

Two plays struggle with equality, but only one succeeds in making the fight seem real

Sacrilege, at the HotHouse Theatre, and Waiting to Be Invited, presented by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, are both about big issues. Both have strong female protagonists (and female playwrights), both have excellent actresses in these roles and, oddly, both use the 23rd Psalm, "the Lord is my shepherd," in key dramatic moments. But they differ in their approach and in the quality of their writing. Diane Shaffer uses Sacrilege to tackle the issue of women in the Catholic priesthood head-on and with a heavy hand. S.M. Shepard-Massat's Waiting to Be Invited concerns segregation in Atlanta in 1961 but approaches the issue from the edges with poetry, eloquent writing and a fine eye for character.

HotHouse is usually known for its presentation of on-the-edge works, but Sacrilege is a decidedly old-fashioned play, albeit with a controversial and timely subject. Donna M. Parroné plays Sister Grace, a smart, energetic nun who runs a crisis center in New York. Grace wants the church to allow women to become priests and, more specifically, wants to a be priest herself. She has worked hard at raising awareness and gathering support on the issue and in the process has ruffled the feathers of her old mentor Cardinal King (Robert A. Mitchell) and the pope himself, to the point where she is threatened with expulsion from her order.

Parroné is excellent as Grace; she towers over the production and the rest of the cast in the same way Grace rolls over her peers and superiors. Her Grace is comfortable in her own skin, knows who she is but also who she wants to be. Parroné, who last year played the sultry Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is utterly convincing as a spiritual woman who loves the Church so much she wants it to be as perfect as Christ was.

Woven into Grace's fight to change church policy is the story of her relationship with a street thug named Ramon (Blaise Azarra), whom she first meets when he pilfers her purse in the park. Somehow Grace recognizes Ramon's inner spirituality (just as Cardinal King first recognized hers) and grooms him into the priest she knows he can be. Azarra is very good, making Ramon's transition believable and sympathetic, and the scenes between him and Parroné are the meat of the play, laying out the theme of finding one's identity and place in the world.

Sacrilege seems to fight itself, on the one hand wanting to be about the ethereal subjects of faith and spirituality but also wanting to be a microcosm of the place of women in a man's culture. The play points out that 70 percent of Catholics support women as priests. The fact that this statistic is included tells you a couple of things: first, that this is a "position play," in which characters have been created to further an idea. This leads to some clunky writing, such as inserting the above statistic into a line of dialogue. Although well structured, the play is of the school that follows the "there's my monologue about my life-changing event; now it's your turn" school of writing. Second, that figure tells us the play is preaching either to the converted or to non-Catholics, who might find the whole self-created issue rather absurd and anachronistic.

Still, it's hard not to feel Grace's frustration and rage at not being allowed to play in the game with the men who own the football and make the rules. The play is best in its small, revealing moments, such as when Sister Joseph (a charming Donna Weinsting) helps fix a cassette tape for the incompetent Father Jerome (Bob Koerner). That one gesture says more than a lot of the proselytizing.

Under the direction of Christopher Limber, Azarra, Mitchell and especially Parroné mostly succeed in navigating the play's flaws, making the sometimes artless dialogue sound as if it's coming from real people. Parroné's energy, total naturalism and presence drive Sacrilege through its clunky moments, but in some ways she is almost too good. It would have been nice to have the opposing viewpoint presented with the same dignity and conviction that Grace has, to give her worthy opponents -- to make us consider, even for a moment, that maybe she's wrong. But in the obligatory "courtroom" scene, the powers that be who decide Grace's fate are played as ineffectual, even comic, despots. And although Parroné destroys every stereotype about nuns (except for the one about their wearing sweatsuits), the old-school Sister Virgilia, played by Teresa Doggett, is a walking cliché right down to her Irish accent.

Had S.M. Shepard-Massat written Sacrilege, it might have been told from the point of view of Sister Virgilia or Sister Joseph. The playwright is interested in the "minor" characters on the periphery of the civil-rights movement. The first act of Waiting to Be Invited takes place on a bus as three co-workers from a factory -- Ms. Louise (Sandra Mills-Scott), Ms. Odessa (Marjorie Johnson) and Ms. Delores (Lisa Harris) -- head out to a special lunch. ("Ms." here is not the '70s feminist appellation but the Southern word falling somewhere between "Miss" and "Mrs."). As their crosstown journey continues, we learn why they've gotten so dressed up today and why they're a bit anxious; they're going to test the recent Supreme Court anti-segregation decision by attempting to eat at the restaurant in Marsh's Department Store. Shepard-Massat trusts the audience to gather this information on our own. Her characters don't talk too much about their mission but are simply engaged in their lives, kibitzing with bus driver Palmeroy (an excellent Council Cargle) and the loopy Ms. Grayson (the engaging Sally Eaton), planning what they're going to order and joking around. The engaging ensemble is uniformly great, all finding the rhythm and poetry in Shepard-Massat's language and making their characters fully formed and real.

Director Ron Himes keeps it all laid-back and naturalistic; we feel as if we're eavesdropping. In the process, we get to know these women so well that their seemingly innocuous conversations take on great suspense -- what will happen to them? Himes and his designers use projections of photographs of lynchings, lunch-counter sit-ins and brutal beatings to put the women's action in context and also to remind us that the danger they are facing is very real.

We've all seen photographs like these -- of the kids being led into Little Rock High School, the men and women sitting stoically at the counter as white goons pour drinks on their heads. But what brought those protesters to that particular moment? What did they do that morning; what did they talk about on the way there? Where on earth did they find the courage? This is what civil unrest looks like -- three ordinary ladies taking an extraordinary stand. It's a fascinating way of looking at an often-discussed issue.

The second act finds the ladies getting cold feet at the entrance of the store as they're joined by Delores' friend Ms. Ruth (MargueriteHannah), who's more worldly than the others; she's thought through the consequences of what they're about to do and is more afraid. Her fear is contagious, and it looks as if the group may falter in its mission. In a moving, eloquently written climactic speech delivered with marvelous understatement by Mills-Scott, Louise verbalizes why they have to go through with it, for the babies they've had and the ones they're going to have. Odessa has told the story of how the factory guards turned the dogs on her children when they came to pick her up at work; Himes plays a loud, long recording of dogs barking viciously, and it has the intended effect of reminding us of the importance of what the women are about to do.

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