Mary Wytkowski, a feisty novice unashamed to ruffle feathers in a climate built on long-standing ideologies and rigid structure, is a truly fascinating brew of complexity, boldness and hope in Tom Dudzick’s surprisingly engrossing comedy “Hail Mary!,” currently receiving a terrific local premiere courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company at the Loft Theatre.
Set in 2003 at Saint Aloysius Catholic Elementary School in upstate New York, “Hail Mary!” is a smart and savvy reminder of how consequential words can be especially when addressed to impressionable third-graders. When Mary tells one of her students that God’s feelings cannot be hurt, she is scolded by Mother Regina Marie, overseer of novice management, for creating an atmosphere of “dangerous ideas.” Viewing theology from a progressive mindset, Mary is fueled by the desire to have students openly question, to simply use their brains, which is in direct contrast to Mother Regina Marie’s orthodox perspective. In turn, these two distinctly staunch women, bonded by faith yet torn by principle, passionately engage in a full-scale philosophical and spiritual tug-of-war. For every defiant declaration Mary delivers (“morals change as the times change”), Mother Regina Marie astutely counters (“God’s thoughts come first. His ideas take precedence always”). In an attempt to keep the play from being bogged down in dogma, Dudzick inserts a humorous love story (the father of one of Mary’s students is her old flame), but it’s the central conflict that fuels the play’s pulse. And for added measure, director Margarett Perry skillfully balances the continually shifting comedic and dramatic flow, recalling her fine work helming the varied layers and nuances in the Human Race’s 2015 production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Victoria Theatre.
Claire Kennedy thrillingly embraces the titular role with dynamic acumen and fiery attack as if she spent weeks in religious fundamentalism debate prep before rehearsals began. A student of the classics (her Shakespearean training is apparent), Kennedy, who portrayed meek wallflower Laura Wingfield in the Human Race’s “The Glass Menagerie” nine months ago, once again brings her marvelous versatility to the forefront. Her well-defined characterization of a woman who can be a trusted ally and a hard-nosed agitator sometimes in the same captivating breath is simply remarkable. Jennifer Dorr White supplies great intimidation and unexpected heartbreak as Mother Regina Marie, particularly in the heated Act 2 which uncovers her past in touching detail and gently humanizes her along the way. The charmingly chipper Joshua Levine is a bundle of joy as Joe Sykarczek, a widowed carpenter who falls back in love with Mary while wanting the best for his son, academically and spiritually, in the way he alone feels is correct. The reliably comical Andréa Morales as Mary’s spunky pal Sister Felicia and Human Race resident artist Scott Stoney as the kindly Father Stanley provide wonderful support. Stoney particularly has some very winning emotional moments whenever Father Stanley reflects on his genuine admiration for Mary’s opinionated bravado, referring to her at one point as “a lighthouse” and “our hope for the future.” It’s hard to disagree.
Scenic designer Eric Moore’s colorfully cute classroom, accented with images of inspirational spiritual leaders and adorned with inspirational spiritual reminders, is an inviting haven of learning proclaiming “a peaceful world” on the chalkboard. The expert artistic team includes costumer Janet G. Powell, lighting designer John Rensel, and sound designer Jay Brunner.
Hail Mary!” notably marks the third Dudzick work the Race has produced following “Over the Tavern” in 2008 and “Miracle on South Division Street” in 2014. This play is certainly Dudzick’s finest and most thought-provoking, creating an educational experience that makes you sit up and lean forward as it pulls you further into its enlightening battle of wills. In fact, when Mary addresses 9/11, speaking to the idea that there’s no such thing as absolute right or wrong, her views will linger in the recesses of your mind.
What does the future hold for Mary Wytkowski? Priesthood? The presidency? It’s difficult to tell because she dreams big. But if you want to get to know this marvel of a woman, and you most certainly should, class is in session until Nov. 20. Don’t be tardy.
“Hail Mary!” continues through Nov. 20 at the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Nov. 10-12 and 17-19 at 8 p.m.; Nov. 8, 15, and 16 at 7 p.m.; and Nov. 13 and 20 at 2 p.m. Act One: 65 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $35-$50 for adults; $32-$46 for seniors; $17.50-$25 for students. There are discounts for select side-area seats available for $12 and $25 for all performances. For group sales, contact Betty Gould at (937) 461-8295 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com.