O’Neill’s ‘Sister Anonymous’ entertains and informs
BOSTON – The play “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey was presented at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown in 2006 and I was blown away by the story of the two men generally acknowledged to be the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was a great show but, as the late newsman Paul Harvey would say, it missed “the rest of the story.”
Boston playwright Catherine M. O’Neill tells the story of Sister Mary Ignatia Gavin in the world premiere of her play “Sister Anonymous,” now being performed under the aegis of Second Act Productions at the Boston Center for the Arts.
“Sister Anonymous” is an earnest, heartfelt, entertaining play that sheds light on the work of an largely-unheralded heroine in the landmark battle against alcohol addiction.
Della Gavin, a native of County Mayo in Ireland, became Sister Mary Ignatia Gavin (Christie Lee Gibson) of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, and there the immigrant Irish girl found her niche teaching music to willing students.
An emotional illness has taken that music away, and as the play opens in 1928 she has been reassigned (reluctantly) to the admitting department of the St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio.
She prays to God that He reveal His plans for her and her early interactions in her new job with both Sister Theresa (Kaylyn Bancroft) and the Reverend Mother (Sharon Mason) are prickly and off-putting.
But then she encounters a drunk named Harry (Colin McIntire) passed out on a gurney in the admitting area.
The attitude of others in the hospital such as Doctor Scuderi (Zack Murphy ) and even the Reverend Mother is that the drunks are human detritus, not worthy of the space they would take up at the expense of more worthy patients.
But Ignatia takes pity; she ends up stashing Harry away in the hospital’s flower room until he can sober up and eventually prays with him, gives him a cup of coffee, and sends him on the way to sobriety with a badge of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which she would bestow afterwards on all those leaving her care.
Soon the number of “travelers” (alcoholics) is increasing, diagnosed with “gastritis” to get them into the hospital under the cover of darkness.
O’Neill has created a villain for the ages in the ambitious archbishop of the diocese (Matthew Murphy) who puts up roadblocks at every turn to the new program when he finds out about it and declares to a bishop (Lucas Commons-Miller) his intention to trash it, even as he enjoys another glass of booze.
At a meeting with the Reverend Mother and Sister Ignatia, he scolds them, bellowing “You’re a disgrace to your habit” with a face redder than his robes. Then the good sister opens a suitcase of cash that the alcoholics whom Sister Ignatia has been helping have donated to keep the program going and to help others.
Whether O’Neill wrote the character in this way or Matthew Murphy kicked up what O’Neill wrote a notch, the character could be toned down and let the dialogue speak for itself, lest the dramatic portrayal turn to caricature.Sometimes less is more, especially when the character turns up later in very different circumstances
While Gibson, who has worked with several prominent local companies is the focus and the heart of the play, she gets fine support from the ensemble cast, all of whom play multiple roles, including Zack Murphy with a winning performance as Dr. Bob Smith, the co-founder of AA who approaches Sister Ignatia for help with his nascent program,
They are able to paper over their different approaches to sobriety to achieve a common goal.
The second act does lag a bit with several scenes that act as an epilogue or coda to the production, including an AA meeting during which members participating in the famed chip ceremony talk about the contributions made by Sister Ignatia.
Another scene is a dramatization of an anecdote about a star whose family was famously a victim of alcoholism. The production might be better served ending with Ignatia’s triumphant opening of Rosary Hall.
Director Kelly E. Smith has done a nice job blocking, staging and pacing the play.
Playwright O’Neill’s research included several trips to Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, interviewing Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine at the Mother House and sisters who lived and worked with Sister Ignatia at Rosary Hall Solarium, the detox Sister Ignatia founded in Cleveland at St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital.
Sister Ignatia died in 1966, but the Rosary Hall she founded at Saint Vincent Charity Hospital in downtown Cleveland in 1952 continues to treat both alcohol and drug-dependent clients.
“Her significant contributions to modern day society have been overlooked for far too long” said O’Neill in explaining her decision to bring the story to light.. “Every addict, alcoholic or otherwise, who has ever gone to a detox stands on Sister Ignatia’s good shoulders.”
O’Neill’s work has been produced by the Boston Actors Theater, Argos Productions and Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Second Act Productions, New Urban Theater Lab, and Open Theater Project. She is also an award-winning TV host and writer who currently hosts a public affairs interview talk show on BNN TV, (Boston Neighborhood Network) airing live Thursdays at 6:30 p.m.
“Sister Anonymous” both entertains and informs, and now we finally know “the rest of the story.”
The Second Act Production of Catherine M. O’Neill’s “Sister Anonymous.” Directed by Kelly E. Smith. In the Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts through March 18. Tickets are $30 with discounts for seniors and students, and can be purchased at Boston Theater Scene: http://www.bostontheatrescene.com.