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We Wait in Joyful Hope at Theatre 503 – Review

We Wait In Joyful HopeIt’s still not crystal clear to me why this play is called We Wait in Joyful Hope, particularly as there aren’t any characters that are sitting around waiting for anything in this busy New Jersey outreach centre run by Bernie (Maggie McCarthy), a septuagenarian nun. The play’s title is, of course, part of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church – adherents of this religion “await the blessed hope” of the Second Coming.

But Bernie isn’t one of those nuns who dresses in a traditional habit and shelters herself from the rest of the world, always and forever praying for “protection” from it.

Instead, she’s involved in community work, whatever form that takes, from providing shelter for victims of domestic violence to organising protests and political lobbying. There’s something not very humble in her insistence that she alone must carry the burden, even after her health is starting to deteriorate; this inability to trust in her own God (even if she would rather not trust any of her friends or benefactors) made me wonder if she might have been better off forsaking her vows altogether and setting up a secular registered charity.

At least then she need not deal with a ridiculous – and exclusively male – church hierarchy, represented here in the form of Father Grady (James Tucker), unable to see things from Bernie’s perspective purely because she’s a woman. But that, I realise, may well have made for a less dramatic play. More than that, Bernie does like a good battle, and never seems to be happier than when there’s an opportunity to triumph over adversity.

Felicia (a convincing Anita-Joy Uwajeh), a vibrant protégée of Bernie, is utterly delightful, immersing herself into Bernie’s scheme to fight against a property developer. We also have Joanne (Deirdra Morris), a former nun who, despite renouncing her vows, retains a silence over precisely why she left her Franciscan order; we know only that she is widowed and has returned to Bernie’s mission, perhaps looking for something to do in retirement. But, as Bernie will eventually discover, she’s not just here to help with the chores and administration. There’s a near-constant look of concealed deceit about Joanne; it will turn out that Bernie is right about her suspicions.

With all the action taking place in one room, we are exposed only to certain showdowns, with others taking place elsewhere and described after the event. It’s an adequate balance, I think; too much confrontation on display would have been rather exhausting. There’s plenty of humour, some of it dark, and all four characters have appeared somewhere before in American theatre, and even Hollywood movies. The dodgy priest, the widow who can’t cope on her own, the promising youngster from ‘the projects’ who could have a successful life if she could just stay away from certain undesirables, and Bernie – always overworked and irritable, though which is the cause and which is the effect is anyone’s guess.

I found this to be quite a touching piece of theatre, inspiring but realistic – not everything comes up Bernie by the play’s end. Some very pressing contemporary issues are explored but not preached about; it would seem, for instance, that affordable housing is an issue of contention across the Atlantic too.

With no definitive solutions forced on the audience, this play is a steadily-paced and surprisingly effective portrayal of twenty-first century feminism, and I was very impressed with this challenging and unpretentious production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Sister Bernie D’Amato is a force to be reckoned with. After thirty years running a women’s center in a New Jersey slum she’s won battles with priests, police and even gang leaders. But now she’s facing her biggest threat yet.

With property developers buying up the neighborhood, and only an ageing ex-nun and a 16-year-old X-Factor wannabe to help, Bernie’s mission to save the center is becoming ever more of a challenge.

Playwright Brian Mullin was selected from over 800 applicants to join the 503Five Writer-in-Residence scheme. His debut drama is a frank and wry portrait of modern feminism, friendship and one extraordinary woman, determined to take on the world.

Cast
Bernie: Maggie McCarthy
Joanne: Deirdra Morris
Grady: James Tucker
Felicia: Anita-Joy Uwajeh

Company
Writer: Brian Mullin
Director: Lisa Cagnacci
Assistant Director: Alex Rand
Designer: Kat Heath
Assistant Designer: Lily O’Hara
Lighting Designer: Sally Ferguson
Sound Designer: John Leonard
Production Manager: Samantha Bennellick-Jones

Theatre503 presents…
We Wait In Joyful Hope
By Brian Mullin
Director: Lisa Cagnacci
17 May – 11 Jun, 7.45pm (Sundays 5pm)
https://theatre503.com/

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