Preview: Workshopped Play Rectitude Shows a Glimmer of Brilliance in Its Character Study of Two Catholics

In the talkback after watching a workshopped version of a new play titled Rectitude, I heard a term—cradle Catholic—that was new to me. It's a person baptized as an infant into Catholicism. Playwright Francis M. Brady puts great emphasis on that in writing this play. Rectitude is the story of Father Ed (Chuck Munro) who is bidding farewell to Mary Shaughnessy (Sue Thomas), his housekeeper of 50 years. He and Mary are exceedingly close having forged a bond with the work they have done at fictional St. Vincent's parish. While Father Ed waits for Mary to arrive at the rectory, he is visited by St. Agnes (Rachel Livingston) and is thrown into a moral dilemma over the work he and Mary have done—and their personal relationship. Charles Askenaizer of Invictus Theatre directs this one-act with subtlety that curates an undercurrent of mystery in Rectitude. Is Father Ed hallucinating St. Agnes? Has he summoned her because of a guilty conscience about Mary? Or is St. Agnes appearing because of the work he and Mary have done over the years?

Workshopping a play is part of the process of play development, so this article isn't a review. A play is reviewed when it's in a more final form. But I think that playwright Brady has a fine one-act in the works and I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

Brady describes Rectitude as a play “about people caught between rules and love. I believe it has particular currency after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. 

I was a preschool Catholic—age three when baptized—and I'm as much Catholic as any of the cradle variety. As a Chicago Catholic, I was raised under the Daley Machine and Cardinal Cody. In addition to the Baltimore Catechism, we were schooled in the lives, deaths, and cults of the saints, so I consider myself to have major cred in Catholicism. St. Agnes was beheaded for not yielding her virginity to any suitors; she resisted the way of the flesh to remain chaste. Rachel Livingston as St. Agnes is both hilarious and terrifying. Livingston played Honey in the Invictus production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with unhinged brilliance. There is a generous helping of off-kilter energy in this performance. One of the audience members referred to her character as "saucy." I would say that, as in Catholicism, this saint was menacing and seductive. 

The rules for canonization were really strict back in the day. At least six miracles had to be directly attributed to that person. Agnes was beheaded for her moral steadfastness. Now, imagine Father Ed being immersed in this lore and a true believer, suddenly taunted by a vision that is very real to him. Chuck Munro is near perfection in his portrayal as a tormented soul. His expressions of love, torment, and guilt emanate from his stage presence. It is as if he were being driven mad. Munro played Rev. Winemiller in Violet Sky's production of Summer and Smoke. In my opinion Munro's stock in trade is characters tormented by female characters. 

Father Ed would have been in seminary when the church taught there were strict divisions of the afterlife, divided into heaven, purgatory, limbo and hellAgnes chides Father Ed for the flask in his desk, for his telling embrace of Mary, and for their work of helping girls in trouble. The parish is named St. Vincent for the patron saint of charitable acts and the poor. This could be an unexplored motif of Catholicism lore but that is not certain.

Sue Thomas is wonderful as Mary Shaughnessy. The idea of a man with holy orders being seduced by the flesh is not new. If you remember Andrew Greeley's book The Cardinal Sins or even further back Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, perhaps you remember the scandal these books caused. Most of the backlash was aimed at the women for causing holy men to fall. Thomas plays her character as being proud of her service to the community. She is even more steadfast in her love for Father Ed and her service to him at the parish. The interplay between Ed and Mary turns comical as Agnes (unseen by Mary) torments him and he rebuts her. It comes off as a regular response to Mary entreating him to come to the south of France with her.

The play ends on a cliffhanger that could make some question their beliefs from growing up. A large portion of Chicagoans and Americans have been imbued with these Catholic beliefs from birth or baptism. It held sway over my life for many years. 

Brady has a bit of fine tuning to do on his script, such as giving more background on St. Agnes and shedding some light on the canonization process. Why is Agnes so fervent in her call for Father Ed to repent and to save Mary in the process? Which is the greater sin—helping girls in trouble or their forbidden physical relationship? This is an insightful and potentially dramatic work in progress and I look forward to Rectitude becoming a full-fledged production.

Rectitude by Francis M. Brady was staged in a workshop performance twice last weekend at Invictus Theatre. Running time was 45 minutes. 

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.