By Mike Hoban
Sister Anonymous – Written by Catherine M. O’Neill; Directed by Kelly E. Smith; Presented by Second Act Productions at the Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston through March 18.
Ever since Alcoholics Anonymous emerged from the shadows with the publication of Jack Alexander’s Saturday Evening Post article in 1941, any account of the formation of the fellowship that would transform the lives of millions of “drunks” and their families has always focused on its founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. But as Wilson and Smith readily admitted, they received a lot of help – divine and otherwise – in launching and building upon their ideas.
Sister Anonymous, a historical drama from the pen of Boston playwright Catherine M. O’Neill, details the life and struggles of the “Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous”, Sister Mary Ignatia Gavin, who has never received the credit she so richly deserves for laying the groundwork for the modern medical detoxification model for the treatment for alcoholism. O’Neill does so with a genuine love for her subject, but also mixes in enough humor to keep the play from turning into a segment from the History Channel.
We first meet Gavin, an Irish immigrant, on her knees under a single spotlight, seeking guidance from above. She has suffered a mental breakdown, and despite her love for playing and teaching music, is now unable to pursue her passion. As a result, she is assigned to work in the admissions office of St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio (where AA was founded), but does not submit to the desk job happily. She’s got a bit of a superiority complex and has trouble getting along with the other sisters, at least until her prayers are answered in a most serendipitous way.
An emergency room doctor brings in a gurney with a very drunk patient aboard and leaves him in her care. Initially she is annoyed by his behavior (and singing), but when the young man tells her his story – how he can’t stop drinking, despite numerous attempts – she feels compassion for him and lets him sleep it off in the flower room adjacent to the admitting area. But he soon begins to go into alcohol withdrawal, otherwise known as “the horrors” and she convinces the emergency room doctor to give him a sedative and admit him with the diagnosis of “gastritis” – thus marking the first hospital detoxification admission.
She continues her work with the help of Dr. Bob from the still-developing AA fellowship, but not everyone shares her compassion for the afflicted. It’s 1935, and drunks are thought more of as moral lepers than medical patients, so she receives major pushback from all corners, including the Reverend Mother (also head nurse) and the archbishop, who may or may not have a bit of a booze problem himself. The story revolves around her brave struggle to see that her “drunks” get the same treatment and respect due any patient with a medical problem, and it is alternately heartbreaking and inspiring.
O’Neill is a good storyteller, and because of its uplifting nature, Sister Anonymous sometimes has the feel of a TV movie, although an extremely honest and heartfelt one. The script is loaded with emotionally impactful moments, and director Kelly gets some strong performances from her cast, including (a very pregnant, as we learn during the play’s prologue) Christie Lee Gibson as Sister Ignatia. Her transformation from a brittle prig to a deeply compassionate caregiver is touching, and she even provides a light comic touch to the role. Sharon Mason is convincing as the Reverend Mother, and the remainder of the cast (Zack Murphy, Colin McIntire, Matthew Murphy, and Lucas Commons-Miller) does nice work, often in multiple roles. But it is recent IRNE nominee Kaylyn Bancroft who nearly steals the show, delivering a pair of powerful monologues by two separate characters that bring the house to tears.
This is a very good production on its own merits, but I imagine that it would pack a particularly emotional wallop for those who have been affected by alcoholism, either directly or indirectly. It’s also fitting that the play is making its premiere during Women’s History month, as Sister Ignatia’s work was truly trailblazing. For more info, go to: https://goo.gl/Af3Xaj