’Tis the season for holiday-inspired and joy-infused entertainment and Ruskin Group Theatre Co. in Santa Monica, CA has done us all a tremendous favor by delivering the world premiere of Bad Habits, a new comedy written by Steve Mazur, directed by Mike Reilly, and starring the simply wonderful Orson Bean and Alley Mills. St. Cyril’s Convent has fallen upon harder than usual times after Sister Bertilda opts to strike a match to light her way, igniting a gas leak in the basement of their crumbling building. The Christmas pageant is coming up and the Mother Superior is hoping the spirit of the season will move the Bishop to co-sign one more loan to assist with needed repairs (their insurance company has declined payment due to a “decaying infrastructure”).
As Mother Superior (or Katherine, when addressed by the Bishop) Alley Mills dons a modest scarf with hand embroidered symbols for ‘peace’ and ‘love’ on either end but she’s hardly what we might assume to be a typical nun if we rely on sources from film and television to guide us. She’s a realist who doesn’t shy away from what some might call ‘foul’ language and knows the Bishop wants nothing to do with her plight (even though he seems about ready to do anything for a loaf of the bread the sisters are famous for baking). When Orson Bean’s Bishop (Theodore, to her) turns her down flat, Mother Superior does not shy at all away from calling him out; a man has been surveying the St. Cyril property and she knows the Bishop has identified the location as an ideal spot for a new cathedral. This would leave the poor families the sisters already struggle to support in school with nowhere to go.
Mother Superior succeeds in guilting the Bishop into promising he’ll attend the pageant with him stating he’s always open for a miracle. She then breaks the news to the Sisters, and it inspires a moment of sad panic as they wonder where they will end up and what will happen to their students. Sister Claire is the group’s musical director with a lovely voice and a not so secret drinking problem. Played by Jacquelynne Fontaine, she manages to maintain her faith in the face of all they have encountered and might help deliver one of the more entertaining moments of audience participation in the play (there are a couple and they are fun). As Sister Helga, Mouchette van Helsdingen is often the straight man to Lee Garlington’s Sister Maggie (Garlington also plays Sister Bertilda), but by doing so, van Helsdingen steers clear of playing the ‘simple’ one – her faith has not wavered even though she battled breast cancer.
Garlington’s Maggie is a never-ending source of humorous delight with her dry delivery that is fueled by her belief that ‘God has an excellent sense of humor”. Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield is Sister Anthea, a musically inspired ball of energy that drives Sister Maggie near mad while making us laugh at her wide-eyed appraisal of all that unfolds. While the Bishop is off attending fundraisers for his cathedral at a Knights of Columbus gathering that affords Orson Bean a wonderful opportunity to tell three jokes that seem to come to him spur of the moment, guided by the reaction from the audience, the Sisters are visited in the night by a young woman named Maria (Kelsey Griswold). An ex-student with a hazy past, Maria declares she received a vision from God that told her to come to the convent.
As Maria, Kelsey is magnetic. She charges the character with a kind of electric energy that makes us fearful at first that she might not be completely in charge of her faculties but soon charms both the Sisters and the audience with her innocence and commitment to being of service at the convent. She doesn’t remember telling them that God sent her and seems to just be a young woman in need of some rest until one of her visions overtakes her and the physicality and power of the experience is startling. As they wait for the doctor, they wonder what they have gotten themselves into until Maria again has a kind of fit offstage and it becomes clear over time that she has knowledge of events in the past of each of the Sisters’ lives. She then appears to bleed from her palms, something Mother Superior identifies as stigmata. And no, that doesn’t sound like it could be funny, but this play with these actors manages to turn this into a comedic experience with more humanity than you might expect.
The Bishop had stated that he was ready for a miracle, and it would be very easy for the Sisters to turn their financial woes and future insecurities around if they had the slightest interest in monetizing Maria’s state but instead Mother Superior and the others decide they must protect Maria from the world. The doctors who examine Maria do not believe it does not have a known cause and there is a moment where Sister Maggie somewhat uncomfortably notes the doctor has a Jewish last name. Though some Sisters are relieved to feel that Maria’s wounds confirm they haven’t wasted their lives, Mother Superior feels the point of faith is not having proof of it. Mother Superior visits the Bishop again, now armed with a certainty that God is a ‘she’ and She wants him to save St. Cyril’s. The Bishop is not convinced, but he does attend the Christmas pageant as promised and there Maria proves she has a beautiful singing voice, though other aspects of her condition as prophet bring the event to a harried end.
There’s more to Maria’s story, but that is better experienced in the theatre with this tremendous cast. Orson Bean’s comedic timing is superb and his presence is remarkable but even he cannot overshadow the fact that we spend the majority of our time in with six commanding women, each delivering skilled performances in their roles. In addition to our Sisters and their charge, Jennifer Sagiao plays the Bishop’s Secretary, making it seven women, and that’s an empowering delight to behold. If you aren’t of the Catholic faith (or of any faith at all) there are definitely going to be some ideas in the script that will leave you wondering where it tries to leave us but if you are looking for something that will make you think about Christmas in a new light, that also takes you out of the Nutcracker/A Christmas Carol routine, this is a good one to consider.
The Understudies are Paul Denk, Jennifer Sagiao, Emily Anna Bell, and Julienne Green. Directed by Mike Reilly. Written by Steve Mazur. Produced by John Ruskin and Michael R. Myers. Creative Team: Brad Bentz (Scenic Design), Edward Salas (Lighting and Sound Design), Michael Mullen (Costume Design), Paul Ruddy (Casting) and Nicole Millar (Stage Manager).
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.