“That pain you feel is love; humanity is love.”
—Sister Florence, The Inconvenient Miracle
This past Monday evening, with an exuberantly packed house and an ambitious all-female cast, I had the immense pleasure of attending the very first public developmental showcase of The Inconvenient Miracle: A Mysterious Birth Musical at Midtown Manhattan’s The Tank. Presented by The Skeleton Rep and directed by the dynamic artist—and mythology enthusiastic—Ria T. DiLullo, the three-hour musical workshop centered on some seemingly implausible and fabulously fantastical happenings at St. Angela’s Catholic School for Girls.
Written by Emily Claire Schmitt, who describes herself as “both a feminist and a person of faith,” The Inconvenient Miracle was originally entitled Whatchamacallit: A Play About Jesus and was first staged in 2012, when Ms. Schmitt was a first-year MFA Playwriting student at the New School for Drama. Two years later, Ms. DiLullo produced the play at The Secret Theater in Long Island City and added a layer of music to the rich story.
“This is how you tell a teenage story”
Still, even after a successful two-week run, both artists realized that there was still work to be done, and there was a lot more to be found by digging deeper into the fictional lives of the women at St. Angela’s. Enter the composer-lyricist Emily Rose Simons, who would eventually provide some of the most creative music and clever lyrics I’ve experienced in live theatre.
We follow the story of the only atheist at St. Angela’s, Vanessa Morales, played by Sarah M. White, who performs with a delightful dash of Winona Ryder’s rebellious flair. At the beginning of the musical, Vanessa’s outsider status is immediately cemented as she outwardly vouches for science over her fellow classmates’ blind devotion to the Man Upstairs, while simultaneously working through her grief after her grandmother’s death. Although Vanessa and her grandmother’s relationship became increasingly estranged towards the end of the latter’s life, there is still an immense amount of tenderness and heartbreak. Ms. White appears so effortlessly available with her emotions that I found myself holding back tears less than thirty minutes into the production, and I could hear sniffles and “wows” that confirmed that this was not an idiosyncratic feeling. How compelling it is to watch an actress so confident and trusting with herself, with her cast-mates, and with her audience. This is how you tell a teenage story: by having your actors behave as honestly to themselves as possible, without an insecurity of being too “extra.”
One day, Vanessa is approached by the overly ecclesiastical Abigail, a daringly devilish antagonist played by Teresa Attridge, a total force to be reckoned with. Like the Abigail from Arthur Miller’s Crucible, Ms. Attridge’s character is a total drama queen, uttering irrevocable declarations while pointing and accusing and aggressing. Abigail is the priestly leader of a posse known as the Disciples (who, by the way, perform some of the most gloriously unabashed backup dancing I’ve witnessed in recent memory). As the Regina George of her peers, Abigail proclaims herself to be possessed by visions that Vanessa, despite being a virgin, will very soon get pregnant, then give birth to Jesus Christ himself, thus paving the way for a new era for, well, the entire world. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but you should be prepared for special appearances by a whole lot of condoms and a helluva ton of (holy!) carrots.
Perhaps with other, more inexperienced actors, the antagonistic character of Abigail could have easily fallen into the realm of caricature, providing laughs but not enough of the believability that would render a villain actually interesting to watch, experience, and analyze. With Ms. Attridge, however, it is evident that an arc was kept in mind, and it works: in the second half, Abigail suffers from a “crisis of faith” and asks out loud, “Is God bad?” The response from the audience: a collectively sympathetic “Aww.”
Why is it always so difficult to watch someone’s faith get punctured and even threatened, even if we ourselves don’t necessarily subscribe to such beliefs? (And, trust me: in a room filled with fellow NYC-based artists and supporters of the performing arts, I can assure you that any of the characters’ spoken and/or sung criticisms of Catholicism were met with extreme agreement.) Religion, faith, a belief system, spirituality, a straight-up cult… whatever you want to call it, everyone wants that one thing: to belong. Subscribing to an organization, a university, a SoulCycle location, a celebrity’s workout regime and diet tips, a Premier League team, a famous artist’s oeuvre, an activist’s teachings… whatever it may be, there is comfort in actively dodging self-alienation and preventing oneself from falling into loneliness. A not fully formed reputation or personal brand is shaped or even usurped by an easily recognizable or universally understandable image, whether that be the cross or Nike’s logo or a sorority sweatshirt or a Colombian flag bumper sticker on your car or labeling yourself as a “dreamer” or “free spirit” or “yoga instructor” on your Instagram/Tinder bio.
Life can get complicated. Faith and devotion, like going to CrossFit four times a week or attending church every Sunday, simplifies the uncertainty of our existence, if only for a little bit. Some people never ask themselves the hard questions about the things and activities they’ve been doing for so long out of either habit or an inherent fear of change (and, thus, of progress and self-improvement). But Ms. Schmitt and Ms. Simon’s writing is not simplistic; their symbiotic willingness to be forthright and face complexity urges not just the characters to reexamine their relationships to religion (whether they buy into it or are entirely opposed to such organized institutions), but also allows and encourages the audience members to challenge their own perceptions of faith, whether it’s the kind that involves prayer or philosophy or meditation or therapy or artistry or extreme physical activity.
“a whole lot of condoms and a helluva ton of (holy!) carrots.”
Personally, the character I found to be most captivating was Sister Florence, played with gentleness and generosity by Emily Olcott. Having devoted decades of her life to the Holy Father (“I’m almost seventy years old,” she seems to realize for the first time to both Him and herself), Florence works through an existential turning point akin to a hitherto happy child growing up and realizing that his or her parents are not actually infallible superheroes, but rather flawed human beings who can make mistakes and are capable of saying or doing the wrong thing and hurting others in the process. Upon the discovery of Vanessa’s pregnancy, Florence, who is in charge of the students at St. Angela’s, must figure out how to help, all while trying to figure out how God could do such a thing (“She’s fifteen,” she reminds Him, in one of her early moments of commanding critical thought).
There are several scenes in which Sister Florence looks up and talks directly to God, as well as to the dead and gone (I shall let that specific person remain a surprise if you have yet to see the musical). These unadorned, one-sided conversations are so illuminating in their fluid journeys, often involving a back-and-forth between wanting to serve Him unconditionally for the rest of eternity (“I could have made a wonderful wife / but I decided that You were the love of my life”) and wondering if this level of unrequited dedication is worth it, whether it is to a divine super-being (“I needed you,” said with such devastating disappointment in Him) or to a fellow human being (“She was miracles, and she made me feel like a miracle, too”).
Vanessa doesn’t believe in religion, although she does wrestle with believing that she is worthy of help from friends and adults, especially with her childhood and early adolescence filled with pain and neglect and upset. Sister Florence, with the opportunity to finally have a family and to perhaps even become a motherly figure to Vanessa, is conflicted with the unfortunately mutually exclusive binary of being a good Catholic nun and being an open, honest person who is willing to admit to feelings of forbidden love that have withstood the test of time. Towards the end of the story, Sister Florence sits with her bold unbeliever of a student, vulnerably admitting out loud, “Oh, Vanessa. You saved me.” Their shared religion is a religion of love, of care, of asking difficult questions and offering challenging answers, of trial and error, and of women helping one another and building each other up to the people they had always dreamed of becoming.
The show’s eponymous miracle may be inconvenient, but the musical itself is unmissable. Back in December, I had raved about The Skeleton Rep’s previous production, Hungry, at The Tank. I truly cannot wait to return to this lively venue and to keep up with Ms. DiLullo and company: these stories of mythology and symbols often prove to be the most memorably humanizing parts of my week, validating my very existence as a living organism on this earth. With both productions that I’ve seen, there arises an objective recognition that I am simply a very small part of this relatively tiny planet in an ever-expanding universe of limitless phenomena, along with a simultaneous subjective pride in having the little things in my day-to-day life feel like big deals and major moments. The Skeleton Rep excels in telling the stories of teenage girls, and it becomes increasingly important from my vantage point to keeping fostering that teenage girl within me to live out loud, to ask uncomfortable questions and demand answers and accountability, and to fight for my ever-increasing number of personal faiths.
The Skeleton Rep’s production of The Inconvenient Miracle: A Mysterious Birth Musical will be shown at The Tank, located at 312 West 36th Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues).
Tickets can be purchased in advance HERE. Each ticket is $6.17, which includes a service fee. Remaining show-times are Wednesday, May 2nd, at 2pm and 8pm.