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Mariette in Ecstasy

Chicago Tribune
February 24, 2009
BY CHRIS JONES

If Mariette in Ecstasy were not about nuns, you'd probably call it a bodice ripper.

But because this new Lifeline Theatre dramatization of Ron Hansen's juicy but contemplative novel concerns the Sisters of the Crucifixion and an especially enigmatic postulate, this fusion of spirituality, shelter, stigmata and sexual tension needs a different moniker.

Let's go with a really good yarn, grippingly told, forcefully acted and intellectually engaging.

Longtime fans of Lifeline know all about this tiny theater's proven abilities with rich, accessible, truthful storytelling. But this richly surprising show throbs with especially complex life.

Christina Calvit, surely one of America's best and most overlooked adapter of novels into drama has taken a work of woman-centered, mainstream historical fiction and somehow negotiated the tonal sweet spot between truth and heightened romanticism.

When things get a little over-ripe in Hansen's story of the underbelly of the cloisters, director Elise Kauzlaric gives the audience permission for the occasional tension-releasing laugh. And yet, at other moments, the production also captures the music and rhythms of the monastic life with both dignity and poetry. You never quite know which way things are going to go, and that gives this show, one of the best Lifeline productions I've seen, a genuinely seductive tension.

Despite its racy sexual subtext of a would-be nun who riles a hitherto quiet sisterhood, Mariette isn't some kind of crude exploitation. On the contrary, Hansen's novel (which is set in upstate New York in 1906) is a compelling look at what happens to a community when a passionate, attractive outsider enters its walls and starts seeming closer to Jesus than some of her more mundane sisters.

It also probes some of the tricky questions at the center of any spiritual quest. What do religious orders do with the sexual tensions of its young postulants? Do ecstatic experiences happen more often to those with a natural flair for the dramatic? Can nuns eradicate envy? What does religious devotion do to the natural ties of family?

All of those matters are up for examination in this piece. The production benefits greatly from a remarkable central performance from a beautiful and honest young actress named Brenda Barrie, who manages to physically set herself apart from everyone else in the production and appear at once more sophisticated and more dangerous. It's a tough, somewhat overwritten role it could easily be overplayed, but Barrie negotiates the various pitfalls with natural skill, evoking the high -school or college peer you envied, despised and adored.

Her color is emphasized by the willingness of several of the other strong actresses in the cast (such as Katie McLean, Patrice Egleston and Elizabeth Olson) to vanish into their habits.

Almost. As this show makes abundantly clear, a throbbing part of every nun always beats outside.


 

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