Old habits die hard: Actress calls on memory of nun to inspire her

She owes it all to Sister Regina Therese.

OK, maybe not all.

But Nonie Newton-Breen — who puts the “Sister” in the comedic “Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold” this weekend at The Smith Center’s Troesh Studio Theater — credits a memorable fifth-grade Catholic nun with the inspiration for her portrayal.

Sister Regina Therese “whacked her frequently … usually for a very good reason,” according to a website bio.

And while Newton-Breen also encountered “kind, sweet nuns” during her parochial school years in suburban Chicago, it’s clear they didn’t have the impact Sister Regina Therese did.

“Sister Regina Therese — whoa,” Newton-Breen says. “There are certain ones that just have the power.”

Ones like Sister (the only name the character has), who presides over “Christmas Catechism” with humorous but undeniable authority.

A spinoff of “Late Nite Catechism,” which played The Smith Center last year — with Newton-Breen in charge — “Sister’s Christmas Catechism” adds a touch of “CSI” to the proceedings, as Sister seeks to solve a centuries-old question regarding the whereabouts of the most valuable of the Magi’s gifts to the baby Jesus. (“We know that Mary used the frankincense and myrrh as a sort of potpourri,” Sister intones. “They were in a barn, after all.”)

There’s also plenty of audience participation, especially when it’s time to “put people in very funny costumes” for the show’s Nativity pageant, Newton-Breen says.

“We have a contest to see who’s got the most Christmas-y sweater — and whoever does gets to be the shepherd,” she says. “You have to earn it. There are no giveaways.”

Nine other audience members also have Nativity roles, and local choirs will be on hand to add holiday harmonies.

“By the time you leave, you feel like you know everyone,” according to Newton-Breen, who for 13 years has been presiding over “Late Nite Catechism” and its spinoffs, among them “Sister’s Easter Catechism,” “ ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3” and the inevitable “Late Nite Catechism in Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice!”

Overall, “it’s a great gig,” says the 60-something performer, who quips that “the more wrinkly I get,” the easier it is to get into the habit. “It’s all part of the outfit. I don’t have to look good in hot pants anymore. Not that I ever did.”

Newton-Breen’s quickness with a quip signals her improvisational background at Chicago’s legendary Second City, the breeding ground for several generations of comedy standouts, from Alan Arkin and John Belushi to Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

Even before Second City, however, Newton-Breen was honing her comedic skills at the dinner table of her “huge” Irish Catholic family.

“I have nuns and priests in the family,” she acknowledges, also citing some cousins who were “kicked out of the seminary.”

Despite her Catholic background, you don’t have to be Catholic to get a kick out of “Sister’s Christmas Catechism,” Newton-Breen insists.

“I don’t want people to think it’s a real catechism class,” she cautions. “It’s not.”

One of several “Late Nigh Catechism” shows — this one written by original creator Maripat Donovan, with Jane Morris and Marc Silva — “Christmas Catechism” offers “just silly fun,” along with a nostalgic, pre-Vatican II glimpse of “when you were in fifth grade, when the kid next to you would get in trouble, and some demented part of you would enjoy it,” Newton-Breen recalls.

As one of two performers who “know all seven shows” in the “Late Nite Catechism” library, Newton-Breen’s had ample opportunity to experience the show’s “good silly fun” in various venues across the country.

“The audience is the co-star in this,” she observes.

The audience also is “the ‘X’ factor,” and “maybe what part of the country you’re in” influences their initial reaction, Newton-Breen adds. In some settings, audience members “sit with their arms folded, waiting to see if you’re going to mock the Catholic Church, but we’re just having fun here.”

During the holiday season, “there may be 10 of us around the country,” spreading the “Sister” spirit.

And for all the laughs “Sister’s Christmas Catechism” generates, the show also spotlights a group of “so many incredible women” that society at large tends to overlook.

“They’re advocates of the poor — they’re so selfless,” she says of numerous nuns. “You don’t hear about them enough.” (Little wonder that “Sister” audiences often take up collections to benefit real-life Catholic sisters.)

There’s also “the whole aura and mystery of the habit, the costume” to add interest, Newton-Breen says. As a child, she wondered, “ ‘Did they sleep in those? Did they sleep under the desk?’ ”

But she was usually too cowed by Sister Regina Therese to do anything but quake in her presence.

“You would lose your ability to speak if she looked at you,” Newton-Breen remembers. “She had the biggest hands of any human I’ve ever seen. She could crush walnuts” (not to mention disobedient students) “with her hands.”

True to her inspiration, Newton-Breen had incorporated some of that intimidating attitude into her “Sister’s Christmas Catechism” portrayal — especially when it comes to her costume, and how she wears Sister’s unseen belt beneath her cassock.

“I used to wear the belt at my waist,” which gave Sister “a dainty walk,” the actress notes.

But Sister Regina Therese wasn’t exactly the dainty type, so “now I wear it more around my hips — which makes me more of a gunslinger.”

Sister Regina Therese would be proud.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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