By Lynn Venhaus
Taught by the School Sisters of St. Francis, Mary Frances Zentmyer took inspiration for playing the irrepressible Sister in “Late Nite Catechism” from Sister Zoerita, her teacher of Biology and Anatomy and Physiology at the all-girl Catholic Alvernia High School in Chicago.
Her role is a habit she doesn’t want to break.
“How lucky am I to have a job, making people laugh, right? I am very fortunate to have found this role of a lifetime. No matter how old I get or look, I will never grow too old for this part,” she said.
With a quick wit and good humor, Zentmyer took time during her stay here to chat about Midwest roots, her longevity playing a nun, and the joy of entertaining people.
A professional actress since 1991, she has been playing Sister in the interactive one-woman show since 2000. Although primarily based at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago, where it has been running since 1993, she has crisscrossed the U.S.
“I’ve been all over the place — Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, ad infinitum. I’ve played Missouri before, in many, many towns and cities,” she said.
She came to St. Louis last holiday season, starring in “Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold” at The Playhouse@ Westport.
She has also performed in “Late Night Catechism 3:‘Til Death Do Us Part” since 2010.
She’s back with the original, and “loves my St. Louis hooligans”!
So, what’s different about a St. Louis audience?
“I have found them to be much more Baptist! I do seem to get a lot of Protestant students — There are lots of Lutherans attending my classes here, too!” she said, referring to them as “Catholic Lite,” with a chuckle.
The show is constructed so that even if people did not go to parochial school, they can find something to laugh about, she said.
The nostalgic premise of the show is to strike a chord with people by taking them back to their childhood. Sister teaches adult catechism to a roomful of ‘students’ (the audience). She rewards pupils for correct answers with glow-in-the-dark rosaries and laminated saint cards, and sometimes comes across like a drill sergeant.
The Catholic Register (Toronto) said: “The show appeals to Catholics and non-Catholics alike since ‘Sister’ clearly explains religious references in lighthearted ways while maintaining a serious tone that isn’t too preachy and far from being saccharine.”
The New York Times in 1996 declared “Late Nite Catechism speaks to an audience much broader than the membership of any one church.”
It’s the audience interaction that makes the show hilarious.
“It’s truly spontaneous — there are no plants in the audience, no shills — even though audience members often ask me afterwards if that was part of the play, and planned. It’s funnier, I think, when it’s not manufactured. It’s completely organic, and in the moment,” she said.
Many of those happenings she recalls fondly.
“I love those fleeting, perfect moments in theatre,” she said.
She mentioned three in particular:
“A very old man, offering me his dentures, to prove that was the only thing in his mouth, after I thought he had gum! One guy calling his brother on his cell phone from the last row of the theatre to the front row, to get him in hot water — the caller spent some time in the ‘Forgive Me’ chair,” she said.
“A ‘dance’ I did at The Straz Center in Tampa Bay in the audience with a man who would walk one way, on sort of a curved arc, as I went the other direction, trying to come around little cocktail tables to get ‘at’ him. It was kind of a modern dance version of ‘The Gunfight at OK Corral!’ It was just a perfection that you could never plan, and you will never see again,” she said.
Another favorite aspect of the show is the give-a-ways to those who answer correctly. Her favorite is the Soldier of Christ keychain.
“I also have a key chain which contains a whistle, so that you can ‘toot for Jesus’! I sometimes have a hand-fan — which you need out here in the summer! — that features a beautiful depiction of “Our Lady of Grace,” and the prayer, “The Memorare,” on the reverse side. It’s called, Mary’s Biggest Fan.”
She has had a long run as the character – 22 years.
“It’s miracle in the acting world! Normally, as an actor, you are always unemployed, and looking for your next gig.”
The only drawback to her costume is the cap, she said.
“The cap is hot. I wait until the last possible moment to put it on, because it goes over the wimple, and that extra layer is like wearing a hat in the house. The wimple doesn’t bother me, even though it’s tight, because it picks up your sagging jowls, and is like a face lift,” she said. “I think that’s why nuns always looked the same age for 30 or 50 years — instant face lift!”
So, what is it about the character that keeps her engaged and on her toes?
“Sister is a no-nonsense, down-to-earth, honest, funny character. She is strict, but not mean-spirited. The challenge most nights is to find the positive, kind way of dealing with shenanigans and disobedient ‘students,’ she said.
“Mary, the actor, cannot get angry at hecklers or wisenheimers. Sister helps me be funny without profanity, and with compassion and old-time discipline, which is a novelty, nowadays,” she said.
“It’s like really being a teacher, which I always wanted to be. I get to really teach catechism lessons, but don’t have to worry about lesson plans,” she said.
Her biggest challenge, she said, is dealing with a student, and then finding her place back in the script.
“I have to put a bookmark in my brain of where I am, interact with the hooligan, and then get back to the 25-page monologue,” she said. “People think it’s a stand-up routine, because it’s a one-woman show, but it’s a play, an interactive play. You, the class, are the other character,” she said.
She holds a special place in her heart for the nuns who taught her, and the parochial school experience at Alvernia, which closed in 1989 after educating girls on the northwest side of Chicago since 1924. Of course, she says with humor, the side effect is an ever-present guilt trip.
“The good School Sisters of St. Francis were tough teachers, but fair, and great women’s libbers. The Sisters instilled a love of God, a very strong work ethic, and a tremendous thirst for knowledge. I carry with me a constant quest for perfection, and tremendous guilt. That Catholic guilt never goes away!” she said.
Another thing she was impressed with was their handwriting.
“I could never quite pick up their perfect handwriting skills, though. I was always impressed by their uniform, meticulous and impeccable cursive. Now that the Palmer Method is gone with the wind, I am thankful I took typing class at Alvernia! Who would have thought we’d all be typing now?” she said.
Zentmyer has been inspired by fictional nun characters, too. What is her favorite nun movie?
“The easy, automatic answer is ‘The Sound of Music,’ of course, but it’s difficult to pick just one. When I first landed the role, I rented and watched all of them. ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’ is probably my favorite, classic one, but I love ‘The Trouble with Angels,’ too. ‘Agnes of God’ is a great play, and I loved ‘Doubt.’ The (St. Louis) actress Mary Wickes was in ‘The Trouble with Angels’ and ‘Sister Act.’ My character of Sister is little like hers,” she said.
Hailing from Chicago, we must know: Is she a Cubs’ fan?
“I grew up 3.3 miles away from Wrigley Field. My Dad drove a C.T.A. bus on Addison Street for 41 years, so Wrigley Field was part of his regular route,” she said.
Nowadays, she roots for both teams.
“I do live with a Sox fan now, though, so I have become a Chicago fan. It’s a mixed household! I have been wearing my White Sox cap here, so as not to be attacked by Cardinals’ fans,” she said.
She joked that she does love the name Cardinals for a ball team.
And she enjoys her time in the ‘Lou.
“People are much more friendly and talkative in the grocery store here,” she noted.
The show runs until June 17 at The Playhouse at Westport, 635 Westport Plaza in Maryland Heights, with performances at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets are on sale through MetroTix at www.metrotix.com or by calling 314-534-1111. Additionally, tickets will be available at the Playhouse @ Westport Plaza box office one hour prior to show time. Groups of 10 or more should call 314/616-4455 for special rates.
Q & A with Mary Frances:
1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I think it chose me. I was the baby of six children, and it may have been a case of, ‘Pay attention to ME!’
- How would your friends describe you?
“Caring, funny, smart, generous and (humble!).
- How do you like to spend your spare time?
“Binge-watching crime shows, and British series, like Sherlock.”
- What is your current obsession?
“Homeland” — Claire Danes is so talented!
- What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I don’t text — or own a smart phone.”
- Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“Getting double-promoted — made me, socially, even more of a geek!”
- Who do you admire most?
“Real nuns — they are so intelligent, kind, industrious and are the most selfless women. Really terrific, inspiring educators and health care professionals.”
- What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“Getting another Golden Retriever when I retire.”
- What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Make people laugh. Best job, ever.”
- What’s next?
“More performances of ‘Late Night Catechism” at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago this summer, then, maybe a vacation (!) to Ireland and Scotland.”
MORE ABOUT — “Sister” Mary Zentmyer
Name: Mary Frances Therese Zentmyer
Age: One of God’s mysteries — all nuns — even the faux ones — are ageless!
Current location: Lives in Chicago (hometown)
Family: One significant other for 27 years and five cats
Education: B.A. in Speech & Performing Arts from Northeastern Illinois University
Day job: Proprietor of Stray Kitty neighborhood B&B; actor
First job: Secretary
First role: Hansel, age 10 at the Park District; professional: Clelia in “The Nerd” at Pheasant Run Dinner Playhouse
Favorite roles/plays: Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter” and, A Defenseless Creature in “The Good Doctor.”
Dream role/play: Miss Hannigan in “Annie”
Awards/Honors/Achievements: Playing “Sister” for 22 years!
Favorite quote/words to live by: Saw on Facebook – “Life is short. Take the trip. Buy the shoes. Eat the cake.”
My Mother always said, “You make your own time at the party.”
And, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones.
A song that makes you happy: The ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “The Hokey Pokey.”