A prolific artist and member of the Immaculate Heart teaching order in Los Angeles, Sister Corita Kent produced bold Warholian silkscreen posters, banners and murals that proclaimed the substantial cultural shift of the late 1960s. The Vatican II edicts of Pope John the 23rd allowed Mass to be conducted in English, tolerated the secularization of nuns’ clothing and relaxed the organization of religious communities. Hippie Revolution slogans soon penetrated Kent’s teaching community, and her colorful artwork surfed that wave, bringing her fame and her religious community’s sudden wealth. Kent was in the right place at the right time.
Playwright and poet Irene O’Garden sensed an untold personal story in this cultural flux, and Little Heart, receiving its world premiere at the Jewel Theatre, is made of her discoveries. An excellent cast of seasoned professionals—led by Patty Gallagher as Sister Corita, the “Little Heart” namesake—works its chronological way through the life and times of this vibrant woman.
Starting as a complete novice in art and teaching, 18-year-old Corita is plunged into curriculum-building at Immaculate Heart College by her senior colleague Sister Maggie (Sheila Savage). Maggie is full of ambition, sass and Broadway show tunes. Fueled by Coca-Cola and chocolate, she also knows how to push Corita’s buttons, and soon the newcomer has acquired her first class of art students and discovered the commercial potential of silkscreen.
Little Heart‘s busy stage is an installation of workstations, craft tables, lecture sites and illuminated screens on which media propaganda and Kent’s actual artwork and catchy affirmations are displayed. Everything is in motion as if to keep us in touch with how the times they were a ‘changing just as Kent’s career takes off. Something of a benevolent dictator, Kent was a hugely successful teacher, fearlessly firing off commands to her assistants in conversation and posters and books. Her famous rules for artmaking quickly became a best-selling ten commandments to live by. “Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.” Words still as fresh as they were fifty years ago.
Clearly, there’s a goldmine of provocative and inspiring material here and an excellent cast to bring it all to life. The use of collage and vignette, rather than dramatic encounter, of chronological documentation rather than deep focus on a few personal issues to heighten and ultimately resolve, makes this world premiere a challenge.
It’s impossible not to fall for Gallagher’s Corita, whose experimental approach to artmaking seems to open every door and every heart. The sequential vignettes that comprise the entire piece are peppered with pronouncements about how influential she was and how many lives she changed. And how hard she was pushed to keep on making lucrative visual messaging. With so much history to cover, the playwright has chosen to tell us how Corita Kent’s career unfolded rather than show us the woman and her life-changing epiphanies. Ultimately Kent’s increasing engagement with political and secular themes outrages her superiors, including the authoritarian Cardinal McIntyre (Jesse Caldwell), who forbids her to continue making art that dares to refresh the liturgical canon.
O’Garden’s strength as a poet is on display in so much of the dialogue. When Corita and activist priest Daniel Berrigan meet, their scenes unfold more in beautifully crafted words than in spontaneous conversation. People don’t really talk this way to each other, even if we wish they did. There is much to savor in Sister Corita’s encounters with Berrigan, played with warmth and dignity by Jewel veteran Shaun Carroll. As Corita’s close friend and early days mentor Sister Maggie, Sheila Savage provided a humorous counterpoint to Corita’s arduous work ethic, and Diana Torres Koss, as the order’s Mother Michael, maximized the moments of political tension.
Still in its infancy, this ambitious world premiere is sure to tighten over time. Patty Gallagher’s brilliance illuminates each fast-paced interaction. One longs, however, for a lot more of Gallagher’s Corita and fewer testimonials.
Little Heart, by Irene O’Garden, directed by Susan Myer Silton, shows at the Tannery Arts Center’s Colligan Theater, 1010 River St., Santa Cruz, through Feb. 19. jeweltheatre.net