Scranton Public Theatre Finds Moral Sense in ‘Nunsense’
Agnes Cummings has portrayed women of the cloth during her 33 years with the Scranton Public Theatre, but she’s never played one quite as entertaining as Sister Robert Anne.
The popular character from Dan Goggin’s Nunsense returns in her own play called Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class, which is running through August and September at the Olde Brick Theatre, 128 West Market St., Scranton.
Produced by Bob Shlesinger, the lighthearted, hour-and-a-half production follows the sister’s music class, with the audience serving as her students. While Cummings had never been in a Nunsense musical before, she had always enjoyed the actors’ ability to engage and interact with people one-on-one and felt that she was up the challenge of supporting a show on her own, though she will be accompanied by West Scranton High School Music Chairman Ken McGraw on the piano.
“I love the challenge of it. I love directly addressing an audience. I equally enjoy being in a show where I don’t break the fourth wall, but I enjoy this for a change too. It’s almost like stand-up comedy,” Cummings explained.
“You never know what people are going to say. There’s always a few that want to get up and participate, and that’s what I’m counting on. I have to put myself into the mindset of a sister and be prepared with comebacks. I have some ideas up my sleeve.”
Sister Robert Anne is a streetwise nun from Brooklyn whose father was a musician. She discovered her love of music while accompanying her father during his gigs, but she eventually started running with the wrong crowd and was sent to reformatory school. A nun was able to turn her life around, which is when she discovered her true calling, but she never forgot her original passion.
“The running theme for Robert Anne through all the ‘Nunsense’ musicals is that she truly loves being a nun and is saved by it, but she wanted to be a performer. That was her first love before she entered the convent,” Cummings said.
“She’s going to take the audience through the steps that she thinks they need to know to have their own cabaret act, whether they’re young or old, and make it great. There are all different kinds of songs: there are ballads, there are up-tempo songs, there are country songs. And of course it’s funny because she’s a nun!” she said with a laugh.
Cummings drew from her own Catholic school experiences to prepare for the role.
“I was educated at Nativity of our Lord grade school, as was my entire family, and it’s across the street from where I live. We went to mass every morning…I really believe in the power of faith. I’m grateful for my Catholic upbringing and education,” she recalled.
“When you’re older and you’re recollecting all the stuff that you went through, it’s good for a lot of laughs. I’m sure we all still remember things, and we will forever, because of the way they were taught by the nuns, even just things about being a good person. Even if you haven’t been educated in a Catholic school, everybody has their stories.”
She also identified with the character on a more personal level, being an educator and performer herself.
“She doesn’t want to be rich or famous. She just wants to do what she loves. The theater is what I love, so I understand that aspect of her and the fact that she shares the talent that God gave her, because I do believe it’s God-given, with kids. That’s how I feel most connected to her,” she said.
“If there’s any other level I can relate to her on, it’s her love of performing.”
While the premise may seem irreverent to some, Cummings was assured when she read the play over that it is may be funny, but it’s also respectful towards the faithful. One line in particular, she felt, summed up the heart of Sister Robert Anne.
“‘When I touch a kid’s soul, it makes me feel whole. There isn’t much more I can say. Let me tell you, I’m blessed, if you haven’t guessed. Everything’s going my way and I am here to stay.’ I think that’s great,” she commented.
“Her faith is beautifully portrayed in this, in song and in her own words.”
The performances will be dedicated to Cummings’ only brother, Joe, who passed away last year.
“He was an altar boy when they still had the masses in Latin. He would have had a couple of good laugh over this show,” she said.
“I hope people get a few laughs and sing along. I think people will have a really good time. That’s my goal, to make sure that they do.”