Nonie Breen brings a bit of good natured sass when you talk to her, delivered with a wisp of her native Chicago in her voice. She makes friends wherever she goes, which is all over the country.
To play the role she’s most known for, the part of the irascible Sister in the Late Nite Catechism series, Newton-Breen has relied on a single piece of advice. “Maripat Donovan told me that the way the play works is if you play Sister as if you were a nun yourself,” Breen recalled.
That means that Breen’s Sister is sharp with a quip or a joke, smart as a whip, charming, and always always watching what you’re doing. Breen as Sister simply doesn’t miss a trick. “You’ve gotta like people. It’s not a one-woman, insulated show. It’s about inviting the audience to a place where their behavior is funny,” she said.
Breen returned to Long Wharf Theatre in Sister’s Christmas Catechism, running from December 4 through 15 on Stage II. Over the course of the past 13 years, Nonie has performed the role of Sister thousands of times in 48 states and Canada. “Every night it’s different. That’s what keeps me excited about it,” she said.
Breen performs all seven iterations of the Late Nite Catechism series, so just keeping which show she’s doing on a given night can be tough, but there is something more serious, and perhaps interesting at the core of the lighthearted enterprise. Breen is constantly reading the news, following trends, and staying abreast of developments in the Catholic Church and beyond.
“I do research to keep the show current and fresh. Nothing is off the table in terms of what is going on the world. It is a comedy so I do keep it light, but I use current events and pop culture. The show asks a lot of you,” she said.
The key though toward keeping the performance a spot of good, clean fun, is paying attention to the audience. Sister is constantly watching her “class,” of course. “People offer up great stuff if you listen to them and let them expound,” Breen said. “Your eyes are on everyone in the crowd. You are working on a couple of different levels. You are in the show, but there is another part of you hovering over it. It requires you cooking on all four burners.”
Watching Sister chastise audience members for talking to each other, chewing gum, and a wide array of misdemeanors adds to the evening’s hilarity. Breen runs a tight ship, and the audience is all the more engaged for it. “By the time most people leave a Catechism show, they feel like they know me and they know each other,” she said. “They feel like they are 10-years-old in their hearts.”
And, that’s exactly the feeling Breen has been traveling the country trying to cultivate. “I want them to go away happy. Every day you read stuff in the news that breaks your heart. It’s cumulative sometimes … sometimes you feel beat up by what’s going on in the world. To have people come and set that aside for a few hours and leave feeling happy, if I can do that, I did my job,” she said.
— Steven Scarpa