A toast to Belfry’s convent comedy

By John Lyle Belden

It seems nuns are an easy target for entertaining and eccentric characters who also have the noblest of intentions. We get another fun take on this trope in “Drinking Habits” by Tom Smith, presented by The Belfry Theatre in Noblesville.

The Sisters of Perpetual Sewing are a small but important order in the Catholic Church. If the Pope pops a button, the garment gets sent to the little convent somewhere in the U.S.A. to get fixed right up. But the sacred stitches don’t raise quite enough funds to keep the lights on, so Sisters Augusta and Philamena (Jennifer Poynter and Cathie Morgan) have let the grape juice ferment and are selling the wine in town. This is kept secret from Mother Superior (Barb Weaver), who is so anti-alcohol, she won’t even allow the words for such beverages to be said aloud.

Thus we get some interesting euphemisms: Devil’s Delight, Satan’s Mouthwash, Lucifer’s Libations, etc.

Fortunately, the secretive Sisters have always-helpful second-generation groundskeeper George (Bryan Gallet) to help.

But local newshounds Sally (Sarah Powell) and Paul (Jeff Haber) have gotten a tip about the secret vineyard and are infiltrating the convent to investigate. It happens that the Order is expecting the arrival of a new member, so Sally becomes Sister Mary Mary, while Paul becomes Father Paul, her brother. Then the actual nun, Sister Mary Catherine (Sarah Eberhardt), arrives, and things start to get confusing. Add to the mix the neighboring priest and amateur magician Father Chenille (Chris Taylor) and word that the Vatican has sent spies to ensure all its facilities are worth keeping open, and confusion, mistaken identities, multi-layered lies, and other farcical elements rule the day.

Aside from quick entrances and exits from multiple doors, the cast also mines comedy gold from the Order’s ritual of keeping silent at random points during the day. (Apparently, wild gesturing and miming is not a sin.) The goofy goings-on crescendo to a wild ending of revelations (and matrimony!) that would make Shakespeare’s head spin.

Direction is by Belfry board president Nancy Lafferty.

Poynter and Morgan are wonderful in a study of opposites – quick-thinking, fast-talking Augusta, and nervous Philamena, who literally can’t tell a lie. Gallet is handed a challenge in keeping George easy-going and kind without coming across as too simple-minded – he’s the average-sharpness knife in the drawer. Powell and Haber ably portray two people in a situation way over their heads, while also working through unresolved feelings. Weaver has Mother Superior cool and in control, but isn’t too sharply stern, and manages to be out of the loop of what’s going on without looking foolish. Taylor makes Chenille charming in a way that gives the Father “dad” vibes. Eberhardt is so much fun to watch as situations, and Mary Catherine’s growing guilt, put her continually on-edge.

This show is very funny and well worth the drive up to Noblesville, playing through Sunday, July 3, at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th, St. Get information and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.

And, just a thought for a future season: Smith also wrote a “Drinking Habits 2.”

Belfry brings inspiring ‘Lilies’ to Noblesville stage

By John Lyle Belden

“What can just one man do?” “It’ll take a miracle!”

Such sentiments summon angels, and can herald an uplifting story like “The Lilies of the Field,” the play by Andrew Leslie based on the William E. Barrett novel that inspired the 1963 film starring Sidney Poitier. Now the “Lilies” grow in Noblesville, courtesy of the Belfry Theatre, directed by Linnea Leatherman.

In 1954, Homer Smith (DeJon LeTray Marshall-Fisher), freshly discharged from the Army, is done with having people tell him what to do. He outfits a nice station wagon and roams the American West, taking day jobs when he feels like it. In a remote valley in the Southwest, he comes across a farm being tended by several aging nuns in obvious need of help. He plans to just pitch in long enough to patch a roof, take a day’s pay and be on his way – but Mother Maria Marthe (Kim O’Mara), and perhaps a Higher Power, have other plans.

The Sisters have escaped from Communist East Germany and Hungary, and get little aid from the Church, attending Mass in a town a few miles down the road, at an old mission church led by young priest Father Gomez (Gideon Roark).  Smith’s race is of little consequence here, among the Germanic nuns and Latinix villagers – they just think he’s a little loco for taking on Mother Maria’s quest to build an adobe chapel on the site of a burned-out house. He’s not entirely certain how he got talked into it, himself.

The locals are represented in this play by Jose Gonzalez (Patrick Crowley), who runs the diner near Gomez’s church. We also meet rich construction contractor Orville Livingston (Gene Burnett), who helped settle the Sisters in the United States, and figured that would be the end of his obligation.

It is worth it to see this play just for the super-sweet and charming nuns under Mother Maria’s care, played joyfully by Jan Jamison, Judy McGroarty, Jan Borcherding, and especially Diane Reed as dear Sister Albertine. Their humor and exuberance — whether learning English, or singing “That Old Time Religion,” with the man they call “Schmidt” — shines through.

Borcherding also appears as a folksinger in a nice framing device for each Act.

Marshall-Fisher makes a very likable Smith with compulsive generosity, while stubborn at times, but not mean. O’Mara never cracks from the stern, stoic shell she creates for Mother Maria, but she’s far from heartless. Roark and Crowley’s characters seem to enjoy watching this unfold as much as we do. Burnett plays Livingston being as hard as the materials he builds with, but still human.

But that chapel — can one man really do it? Witness the “miracle” at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th St., Noblesville, through March 27. Get info and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.

Belfry sets a place for you

By John Lyle Belden

What’s the most important room in the house?

You might answer the kitchen, as that’s where the food is; or the living room, as that’s where the TV is; or, of course, the bathroom for obvious reasons. But the play “The Dining Room,” a comedy by A. R. Gurney, makes a case for this often-overlooked (if you even have it) space that was a stoic witness to change for middle-class America through the 20th century.

In the Belfry Theatre production, occupying the Switch Theatre in Fishers through Jan. 30, seven actors show us 18 scenes through 40 years (1939-79) with one nice but not quite antique table and set of chairs. Though it finally goes on the market in the era of Disco, this house is mostly home to members of a single family. They wouldn’t consider themselves wealthy but are well-off enough to have at least a cook and maid, at least in the early decades.

The fourth wall (French doors, we are told) becomes our window into their lives, as even in the stuffy past, there are youngsters looking towards the new while elders cling to the best of what has been. As the scenes bounce back and forth through the years, parents become grandparents, children become parents, and there’s always something we really shouldn’t talk about at the table.

The ensemble of Mia Gordon, Jennifer J. Kaufmann, Tim Long, Jeff Maess, Tom Riddle, Addie Taylor, and Debbie Underwood splendidly take on what must be a fun acting exercise, inhabiting the various ages and characters – only one is an actual youth, so “child” roles take on extra charm as the older hands truly commit. Under the direction of Diane W. Wilson, the scenes flow easily into each other, sometimes having a person or two from one era sharing the space with oncoming folks from another, making the room, in a way, timeless.

Though real tensions and drama sometimes pop up, this play is mainly a gentle comedy, the kind of feel-good family portrait that we can use about now. Even if we aren’t mid-century WASPs, we can feel a sting of familiarity in dealing with relatives in changing times. And it’s good to find something to laugh about, or at least knowingly smile, in it all.

Find the venue at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D (note there is street construction in the area). Find info and tickets at www.thebelfrytheatre.com.