Playwright Christopher Durang had all but given up hope that his 1980 off-Broadway hit "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" would be made into a movie. Durang initially sold the movie rights to an independent producer in 1985. Yet while other hit plays from the time with Catholic themes--such as "Mass Appeal" and "Agnes of God"--were produced as films, "Sister Mary" languished.
But after 16 years, several title changes, more than 15 different version of the script and two new producers (Kirk Stambler and Victoria Tennant), "Sister Mary" has finally made it to the screen, albeit the small one.
Now titled "Sister Mary Explains It All," the comedy premieres Sunday on Showtime. Diane Keaton, Brian Benben, Jennifer Tilly, Wallace Langham and Laura San Giacomo head the cast. Marshall Brickman, who won an Oscar for co-writing "Annie Hall" with Woody Allen, directed.
Set in the early '80s, the comedy takes place on a winter's evening at the annual Christmas lecture given by the charming but stern Sister Mary (Keaton). As a teacher, Sister Mary has taught her students to memorize the rules and dogma of the Catholic Church. A stickler for every rule, Sister Mary harbors a resentment against Pope John XXIII and the 1964 Vatican Council for liberalizing the church.
This evening, four of her former students (Benben, Langham, San Giacomo and Tilly) return to present a version of the third-grade Christmas pageant they performed 20 years before.
The quartet, though, has returned not to praise their former teacher but to confront her. Their outrageous performance flies in the face of Sister Mary's belief system, and her lecture takes on a dark, ominous tone.
Durang acknowledges that the Catholic Church wasn't thrilled with "Sister Mary," so he believes the controversy surrounding the comedy may have been one of the main reasons it took so long for it to be produced as a film.
Brickman, says Durang, read all 15 previous drafts of the screenplay. "He gave me good feedback," says the award-winning playwright. One of the changes Brickman and the producers discussed with Durang was updating "Sister Mary."
"[That] made me very uncomfortable," Durang says. "I think Sister as a character doesn't exist as clearly now as she did back [in the 1980s]. We decided to place the movie back in time, kind of close to where the play was set. That is significant because the students who show up went to school in the '50s and '60s, which is the time frame I knew."
Durang, who attended various Catholic schools, didn't base Sister Mary on any nun he encountered. In fact, he says he liked most of the nuns who taught him. Still, he adds, "through no fault of their own, they were the repository of how the church was teaching at the time, which means you learn by memorization. The intricacy of the rules you were taught from age 6 on, you were so young you didn't know half of what you were talking about."
Because she was playing the part, Keaton did feel sympathetic toward Sister Mary.
"But who she is, I have no sympathy for," adds Keaton, who described her father as a "lapsed" Catholic. "[Sister Mary] chose to follow these sets of rules. The way Christopher Durang writes, it makes you see how ludicrous they are. I mean, any thoughtful person would sort of have to question the Catholic Church after seeing this."
Though the play had a surreal tone, the film is much more realistic. "This kind of film can't be theatrical," says Brickman. "The play was very broad, and we did a little work on the script, not to open it up, but to make it plausible."
Performing Sister Mary's long monologues was a challenge for Keaton. And getting into Sister Mary's habit was almost impossible.
"To me, there could be nothing more terrifying than the idea of being alone on a stage--talking," she says. "That takes a certain kind of command which I never really felt was my forte. This was like a dance alone a lot of the time. It was very difficult for me."
"Sister Mary Explains It All" airs Sunday at 8 p.m on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (maybe unsuitable for children under the age of 14).