We Wait in Joyful Hope is a play that shows much promise and heart.
There is in youth, Sister, a natural, God-given fire. But it must be properly managed…give it the wrong kind of fuel. And it gets out of control.
This is only a small part of the wisdom of Bernie, once called Sister Mary Joseph, until she rebelled against being an anachronism. Bernie is the central character in We Wait In Joyful Hope, a play by Brian Mullin now playing at Theatre 503. Commissioned in 2015, as part of the 503Five residency at Theatre 503, this is the play’s world premiere.
Mullin cites his aunt as the inspiration for the play. As a young Franciscan nun in New York in the 1960’s she took up the call to bring the Catholic Church into the modern world. Though numbers of female religious have dwindled, there are still some who live side by side with those in need, working to improve the lives of the marginalized. Echoes of feministic issues lie within this play as the women respond to a less than inclusive attitude of a male hierarchy.
Though accurate, this summary paints a too narrow view of a play that is steeped in more positive emotions. Bernie is one of three female characters who are strong and feisty and concerned with much more in life than the state of their love life and family relationships. There is love, warmth, steel and perseverance in equal measures.
The play opens with Bernie in full force. She is played by Maggie McCarthy who commands the stage with power and charism…or should that be charisma? (That’s an in-joke only able to be appreciated after seeing the show) McCarthy is ultimately convincing as the powerful woman who is in charge of not only herself but also her flock of miscreant women and the local community in general.
Bernie’s strength is shown best in the contrast to her weaknesses. As a sugar addict headed for health issues, McCarthy exposes the chink in her armour as her illness forces a dependency on others that she has resisted for years. The vulnerability of the character in her downward spiral is palpable.
With her in the light-hearted opening scene is Bernie’s mentee Felicia. Played by Anita-Joy Uwajeh, Felicia is a tough sixteen year old living in less than ideal home circumstances. Bernie sees her innate intelligence and is encouraging Felicia in her education. Uwajeh finely moulds the fragile Felicia to endear herself to the audience. She is strong in her defiance, soulful in the insufficiencies of her home life and joyful in her youth.
Coming from the past to test Bernie is Joanne, played here by Deidra Morris. Joanne worked with Bernie in setting up the women’s centre but left the order to marry and is now widowed. Her love of Bernie and the need to support her, whilst sheltering herself from her own insecurities, leads Joanne to ultimately betray the trust of Bernie.
Morris plays Joanne as the antithesis of Bernie, eager to please and deferring to all. Morris clearly defines her character and finds the depths of Joanne, revealing her to have her own strength and courage. The audience takes her Joanne to their hearts and appreciates the humour of the contrast between the two women.
The single male character is played by James Tucker – the up-to-date, savvy and suave Father Grady. Grady is a thorn in Bernie’s side and is the catalyst for change. Tucker plays his role with charm, edged with a hint of enmity, in a nicely timed performance.
Lisa Cagnacci directed We Wait in Joyful Hope and has collected together the strands of performance and production values in a great co-dependence. Each element supports the narrative very well and lets the characters shine in their setting.
On entering the theatre, one is fooled into thinking the play is set in the 70’s from the ephemera on display but that is quickly set to rights as soon as the play begins. Actually, the setting is very current. It is only that Bernie hasn’t altered her rooms since Joanne left. The details of set and costumes designed by Katharine Heath add significantly to the overall of aesthetic of the show.
Lighting and sound designs, by Sally Ferguson and John Leonard respectively, are excellent. Particularly effective is the morning light through the skylight and the candlelit moments. The use of music and sound effects is very evocative of time and place. Special mention should be made of the sound operator who never missed a cue and whose timing was exemplary.
We Wait in Joyful Hope is a play that shows much promise and heart. It could be a tad shorter; some of the repetitions of ideas or some of the longer silences could be reduced. In performance there is a tendency for the actors to shout lines when a commitment to the words would be more effective.
Beyond these minor quibbles though, the audience leaves the theatre uplifted with the knowledge that there are people such as Bernie in the world and that there is hope for the future. We all wait in joyful hope that inequities are redressed and the beleaguered relieved.