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.”

IF welcomes you to ‘Pooh Corner’

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Most of us have spent at least part of our childhood in the Hundred Acre Wood, or even in an acre of our own with some dear plush pals. Return to that wonder-filled place at “The House at Pooh Corner,” presented by Improbable Fiction Theatre Company at the Ivy Tech auditorium in Noblesville.

In pajama-esque costume, Winnie-the-Pooh and friends from A.A. Milne’s books come to life, adapted by Bettye Knapp, directed for IFTC by Dana Lesh. 

Today’s adventure starts with an Emergency Meeting, with much to address. Eeyore is tired of standing out in a field at 3 a.m. and wants a house. A mysterious and frightening new creature has appeared, wreaking havoc on Pooh’s chair and Owl’s home. Who or what is the mysterious “Backson”? Most concerning, though, is that Christopher Robin’s parents are intent on sending the boy away to “Education.” 

This calls for action – perhaps an excursion to the South Pole, as the North Pole has crocodiles.

In this production, what would have been just a charming experience for young audiences has been made truly exceptional by near-perfect casting: 

  • Daniel Shock has not only the constantly contemplative look but also the familiar classic voice of Pooh Bear down solid. 
  • Diann Ryan masters Piglet’s mix of energetic, neurotic, and eager-to-please. 
  • Scott Prill exudes all the gentlemanly gravitas of Owl. 
  • Jennifer Poynter is endearingly maternal and germaphobic as Kanga, dealing with Sean Wood as hyper and eager-for-fun Roo. 
  • Barb Weaver has the take-charge attitude of Rabbit, who also watches over bunny relatives Early (Evelyn BeDell) and Late (Paxton Shock). 
  • Geoff Lynch embodies the blustering braggart force of nature that is Tigger, complete with animated giggle.  
  • Ryan Shelton brays as discontented, depressed Eeyore so well, it’s a wonder he isn’t on the others’ nerves. 
  • Gabrielle Morrison seems to have stepped off the page as Christopher Robin. The voice of his father (one of “them”) is provided by Jeff Bick. 

The commitment by the actors to their plush alter-egos helps immerse us in the whimsy of their world, making this a nice experience for theatre-goers of any age. As an added treat, the cast comes out to greet and take pictures with fans at the front of the stage after each performance. 

Visit “The House on Pooh Corner” April 22-24 – 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday – at Ivy Tech, 300 N. 17th St., Noblesville. Find information and tickets at iftheatrecompany.org.

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.

The beat goes on for CCP with ‘Ragtime’

By John Lyle Belden

RAGTIME: A modification of the march with additional polyrhythms coming from African music, usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak beats accompanying a syncopated (“ragged”) melody in the right hand. Ragtime is not a “time” in the same sense that march time is 2/4 meter and waltz time is 3/4 meter; it is rather a musical style that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. – from Wikipedia

How appropriate that “Ragtime” is the title of the first show for Carmel Community Players after losing its previous home: The beat of the theatrical season goes on, as events turn ragged with a stage search resulting in a nicer venue – though outside Carmel and further from Indy. A large and immensely talented cast and crew adapt quickly, making props and actor movement serve a larger space, singing their hearts out as seasonal health issues threaten.

Yet it all works.

It is worth the drive up to Noblesville to see this compelling glimpse of an America that, a century later, still casts its shadows on the events and issues of today.

This Broadway musical is largely the story of three families – Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ronald Spriggs) and Sarah (Angela Manlove), the woman who fell in love with him; Jewish Eastern European immigrant Tateh (Thom Brown) and his daughter (Ali Boice), seeking any possible opportunity in America; and the wealthy white suburban family finding themselves in the middle of upsetting but inevitable social, historic and cultural changes. Being what would now be called the faces of “white privilege,” in this latter group we don’t even bother with names: Father (Rich Phipps), Mother (Heather Hansen), her Younger Brother (Benjamin Elliott), Grandfather (Duane Leatherman) and Little Boy (Lincoln Everitt).

We also see some people who one might actually meet in early 1900s New York, including anarchist Emma Goldman and Civil Rights icon Booker T. Washington, powerfully portrayed by Clarissa Bowers and Bradley Lowe, respectively. Celebrities include Harry Houdini (Jonathan Krouse), popular magician and escapist; and Evelyn Nesbitt (Molly Campbell), the Kardashian of her era.

Appropriately, the most critical roles give the strongest performances – Manlove and Spriggs bringing us to tears, Brown confronting crushing problems with wry humor, and Hansen struggling to reconcile her “perfect” life into a more just worldview.

Also notable are Guy Grubbs as unrepentant bigot Willie Conklin, and – at the opposite end of character appeal – little Gavin Hollowell steals our hearts in the final scene.

In addition, I must give kudos to Everitt for, as frequent narrator and our future-generations point of view, ably carrying such a big role on his small shoulders.

This musical has seen some controversy, particularly in its period-appropriate use of the N-word, but the horrors of racism should disturb us, and in the end this is not just a story about groups, but individual men and women, like us, dealing with the still-continuing evolution of this thing we call America.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday (April 27-29) at Ivy Tech Community College auditorium, 300 N.17 th St., Noblesville. Information and tickets at carmelplayers.org.