She's Not a Nun, But She Plays One in Scottsdale

Lunch at First Watch

Polish sausage covered with bright-yellow mustard, melted Swiss cheese and onions, with eggs, potatoes and an English muffin on the side -- that's the composition of the dish called the "Saint John" on the menu at First Watch in Scottsdale. It sounds very Chicago, and very Catholic, so that's what I order, in honor of my companion, Patti Hannon. The Chicago native will -- God willing, of course -- be playing the role of "Sister" through at least March in the one-woman show Late Nite Catechismat Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

"Sister" Patti herself orders more glamorously -- an "Acapulco Express."

Then she offers me her views, which are considerably less autocratic than Sister's, on everything from Catholicism to the theater to the weather.

With that last topic, for instance, she recently had a close call. The producers of Late Nite Catechism "were gonna send me back to do a couple shows East," she says. "They wanted to send me to Detroit. I said, 'Let's think about this. There's a kind of momentum going here. Things are going well. Why don't we just leave me here?'" She laughs her big, hearty laugh. "I'm talking by the side of the pool! I can hear the wind chill blowing through the line."

Her smooth talk worked. The Detroit assignment went to another of the half-dozen-odd actresses who play Sister on the road in Catholic-heavy towns such as New Orleans and Boston.

Late Nite Catechismis a sort of benign spin on Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, though the writers and producers would likely resist the comparison. Durang's scabrous, uneven and often very funny play about the petty tyrannies of parochial school nuns is unmistakably anti-Catholic; Late Nite, by Chicago bards Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan, is gentler and more affectionate in its ridicule -- to the point, Hannon tells me, that performances of it have often been booked in churches. Though it's definitely a satire, says Hannon, "It's asking people to look with a light heart at how you grew up, at how education was in a time, in an era."

But the format is largely the same as Durang's -- a nun stalks about the stage, vigorously and strictly lecturing the audience as if it were her class, explaining church doctrine and tradition in humorous terms. Catholic-school vets lap it up. Following a smash initial run about a year ago, the piece has been enjoying a wildly successful return engagement at SCA since this past summer.

The conciliatory, nostalgic tone is the secret of the play's success, suggests Hannon, who has also played the role in Boston and in New York. She went to Catholic grammar school and high school herself, and while she's no longer practicing, she says, "I've never been bitter or antagonistic about it. If this show has done anything for me . . . I always felt a little jealous of people of the Jewish faith, 'cause I had so many friends who say, 'I'm Jewish, culturally, but I don't do the faith anymore.' I never felt I could say that, but now I recognize that Catholicism in itself has its own culture, and you can never take that out of me."

The "Saint John" is set in front of me, and I start in. It's pure grease, of course, but also pure bliss. No less appealing is Hannon's "Acapulco Express" -- an omelet wrapped around chorizo, avocado, onions, cheese and chiles. She's also overjoyed to find that there's even seedless blackberry jam on the table for her muffin.

It was a nun, in fact, continues Hannon, who first encouraged her interest in acting. "Sister Modesta, my fourth-grade teacher," she recalls. "Did you ever have that teacher that you thought you'll probably never have, because she'll probably be dead by the time you get to her grade, and then she's there? You never can figure out how old she is, and then you come back 10 years later and she's still there? That was Sister Modesta. She was quite a loving, compassionate person. I could cry when I think about her."

Sister Modesta gave Hannon an "honorable conduct" pin for her performance in a play. "I can remember that feeling of carrying that wash basket. Again, I was an ethnic character, the Irish laundry lady." She rumbles laughter again. "Even in the fourth grade, my very first role, I was always the ethnic!"

Despite such fond memories, Hannon recognizes the difficulty of reconciling old-fashioned Catholic doctrine with modern social mores. "You put yourself in such a bind when you're infallible," she observes. "Because reasoning can't begin to create a change. I still think it's gonna take a couple more popes before it really changes. And then, basically, we'll be Looderns."

Excuse me? Did she say "looters"?

She cringes with embarrassment. She said "Lutherans," of course, but she said it Chicago style.

"I worked so hard to get that Chicago outta my mouth, and then I've been doin' Sister for five years," she grumbles. "I let it roll for her, and it doesn't go away."

Hannon came back to acting later in life, after years as a social worker, an infant nurse in hospitals and orphanages, and later a teacher of Transcendental Meditation, as well as bill-paying stints working for Citibank, and as a house cleaner. A large woman with a deep, boisterous voice, she's struggled with typecasting throughout her career. Still, her résumé is substantial, encompassing plays ranging from The Importance of Being Earnest to She Stoops to Conquer. She played the mother in a stage version of Zola's Germinal at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. She hasn't done Shakespeare yet, but she'd love to take on the Nurse or Mistress Quickly.

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