Nonie Breen and the show “Late Nite Catechism” were made for each other — or so it seems after a telephone conversation with her.
In the comedy, Breen is Sister, a nun who takes audiences back to a classroom in a Catholic school, where she alternately praises, berates, rewards and punishes her students — the audience members — in an interactive and improvisational comic give-and-take.
“I’m from a large Chicago Irish Catholic family,” explained Breen, who is 67. There were nine kids, her Aunt Mary was a nun, and there were priests in her extended family. She was the second oldest in the family, and she and her brothers and sisters attended Catholic schools. She has said that her portrayal of Sister is patterned after the nun that was her fifth-grade teacher.
“I grew up in the culture, with pancake breakfasts and Friday fish fries, and The Monsignor visiting our house.”
That culture is the setting for “Late Nite Catechism.” The show, written 20 years ago by Vicki Quade and Maripal Donovan, is partly scripted and partly improvised. Breen is a natural for the improvisational part as well, having been a member of the improv group Second City, as well as other comedy productions, and having written comedy for television.
“Late Nite Catechism” has been described as “gently satiric” and “warmly funny.” Breen said it doesn’t make fun of Catholicism or nuns.
“We just have fun. We have done fundraisers for Catholic schools and hospitals, and we’ve done it for cardinals and bishops. It’s not really satire, but more an homage to growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, when you were expected to behave and to give teachers a certain amount of respect.”
In her interaction with the audience, she gives out prizes like a glow-in- the-dark rosary or a holy card. And she said she scolds some of her audience “students.”
“People love to see other people getting in trouble,” she said.
The classroom set has a chalkboard, the Sister’s desk and a bulletin board with pictures of the presidents on one side and the pope, Mary and the saints on the other.
Although there is a basic script, every performance is different, depending on the audience. She acts and reacts during a wide-open question-and-answer segment of the program. She said she never knows what’s coming.
“People have different attitudes,” she said. “Some are still mad at the nuns.”
If she gets a hard question or a bad attitude from someone, Breen said she tries to dodge it and improvise to get back on the comedy track. She keeps the show updated. For example, in her discussion of sins, she may have people yell out what used to be a sin and isn’t any more.
“There are lots of jokes, but not at the expense of the church,” she said.
The version of the show that she will bring to the Clark Center is the original version, but there are six different shows now, including an Easter version, a Christmas version and a new Las Vegas show. They are performed in various venues, from small-town fund-raisers to large professional theaters around the country. Breen tailors her performances to the audiences.
“The Baptists in the south are very polite, saying ‘Yes, ma’am and ‘No, ma’am.’ I prefer the rowdy Northeasters. They are more challenging. I don’t think of it as a one-woman show. The audiences are the co-stars.”
Part of the fun is traveling all over the country, she said.
“To be my age and working at what I love is a blessing.”
IF YOU GO
"Late Night Catachism"
8 p.m. Saturday
Clark Center for the Performing Arts,
487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande
$39 to $48
489-9444 or www.clarkcenter.org